Tuesday 26 March 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'The thing we love about Sexton becomes the very thing we can beat him with when the s**t hits the fan'

Jonathan Sexton, right, with head coach Joe Schmidt during Ireland training at Carton House
Jonathan Sexton, right, with head coach Joe Schmidt during Ireland training at Carton House
Joe Schmidt will look to Johnny Sexton to ensure Ireland are keen and mean for the visit of France in the Six Nations tomorrow week BRENDAN MORAN/SPORTSFILE. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

A former Ireland rugby player once described his friendship with a team-mate in three stages. The first stage he loved his friend, the second stage he hated him, the third stage he grew to love the things he used to hate about him.

That's the thing with friendship - you know your friends' vulnerabilities and weaknesses yet love them all the same. But, of course, not everything is as linear or fixed as that.

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Johnny Sexton is the most scrutinised sportsperson living in this country - besides Conor McGregor who comes across more pantomime than person. There have never been more calls for an Ireland rugby player to change the way he plays more than Sexton, whose game is dissected more than Sexton's, whose health is discussed more than Sexton's (although this can stem from a genuine concern in relation to head injuries), whose body language, demeanour and whether he's smiling or not are as mused over more than Sexton's. And, yes, an article like this is just adding to the pile.

"Honestly, every part of my game has been criticised at some stage over my career," Sexton said in an interview earlier this week.

"Does that annoy you?" I asked him.

"No, it's part of being a professional sportsperson," Sexton replied. "Not that I pay too much attention to it, I try not to get too many opinions (as) it can spoil your own thoughts. I've got some great people around me, coaches, team-mates, you listen to their opinion."

This time last year Sexton could do no wrong. Those 41 phases and drop-goal in Paris was Irish rugby's version of a Caravaggio. Watching how he and his team-mates celebrated, including doing a remake of an Italia '90 pile-on, never gets old. There were plenty of other displays of emotion last year - what about the 74th minute of Ireland's win over New Zealand in November when Sexton helped tackle Ben Smith into touch. Sexton marked it by doing an arm pump in front of a crowd going wild in response.

When Sexton kicked whatever was on the ground and dropped a few f-bombs as he walked off the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico last Sunday, it was - to some on social media - evidence that Sexton had lost the run of himself. TV cameras earlier showed him looking p****d off a few times during the game. There was also a moment when referee Glen Jackson warned about overturning a penalty because of a complaint from Sexton which does no favours to the Ireland vice-captain.

But there's a double standard at play with some of the reaction to how Sexton reacts. We admire Sexton's spirit when it's framed by winning because success is what most people want to attach themselves to. However, what's less palatable to some are the other emotions an individual can feel - like anger, annoyance, frustration.

The thing we love about Sexton - his fire, his determination, his demand - becomes the very thing we can beat him with when the s**t hits the fan. Obviously, there is a line, we all know that, and Sexton should know that.

For example, it's understandable why some would be annoyed at the way Sexton reacted coming off last Sunday because it jarred with the joy fans felt for Jack Carty making his international debut. But Sexton said he was just unbelievably frustrated with how Ireland were playing and that's why he reacted the way he did coming off. That might come off as selfish to some.

But selfish this year was selfless last year when he kicked that winning drop-goal in Paris knowing he would get criticised if he missed it. Sexton's single-mindedness has brought so much success to Ireland and Leinster yet he gets crucified by some on social media for his single-mindedness when Ireland aren't performing well and he shows how he feels.

What kind of one-sided and narrow view of sport and sportspeople do we want if we yell "offside" to players who show annoyance at themselves and their team-mates during a frustrating game? Would you prefer if Sexton slapped the Joker fake smile on his face instead as he came off? Would you prefer him to bottle up and hide the way he feels so as not to offend those watching at home?

How many times have we heard from players that Sexton is like a coach on the pitch (by my records, Luke McGrath was last to mention it before Ireland's November Test with Argentina last November).

So, it seems Sexton has that extra leeway to reprimand players in the way few others can or would get away with. In the Lions DVD of the 2017 Tour of New Zealand, there was a mic on Sexton at training and you can hear him giving out: "what the f**k was that, what was that?".

Having a player who constantly drives his team-mates at training must be a coach's dream - what he's achieved with Leinster, Ireland and the Lions proves that. And it doesn't just automatically stop when he's playing in front of over half a million on TV in a game like last Sunday's.

"No-one cares more than us, that's the bottom line. I'm sorry if I let my frustrations boil over at times but that's part of me and we care a lot about the team and want them to do well," Sexton said. "Do people want us to be smiling on the pitch when things go bad? We're as angry, not angry, we're as frustrated . . . but it's ok to be angry as well," I threw in.

"Well, I think it is but people are different. People are going to say you know you shouldn't act frustrated when you're coming off. I wasn't frustrated because I was coming off, I was frustrated because things didn't go well for us again."

Authenticity is such a rarity these days. Image and the way sportspeople present themselves and their marketability means we can get cardboard cut-outs for personalities.

Fake

What continues to remain refreshing about Sexton is that he's kept a part of himself away from the pressures which tell him how he's expected to act for public consumption. At the launch of the Heineken Champions Cup last September, Sexton spoke about the tweaks he may to have to make as the new Leinster captain: "I can't sort of change totally because you're captain and that would be fake so I've got to still try and be myself but maybe just adapt to things slightly."

No-one's pretending Sexton is the finished article in his new role as Leinster captain. No-one's pretending that Sexton might regret the way he acts at times. No-one's pretending he's above criticism irrespective of him being World Player of the Year.

But Sexton's not pretending to be someone else. He's not packaging himself up to make himself more popular with the masses when he's playing or responding in a way that might be more palatable to people. He's not trying to cod us with an image of himself far different to the way he really is.

He's concentrating on winning. And he's doing the one thing some of us can sometimes forget to do in life: he's daring to be himself.

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