In part two of three articles, Tom Sexton speaks about what went wrong in his spell down under
In 2013, Tom Sexton left Ireland with everything to prove to his new employers the Melbourne Rebels, to his old employers Leinster and to the man in the mirror.
"What I walked into was not what I was expecting," he said.
"You are at Leinster, you know, world-class facilities. Australia had won the World Cup twice. The Rebels is a Super Rugby team. You are expecting a similar standard.
"It just wasn't that. It was a fledgling club, full of great people, but they were pulling together things that established clubs had put in place years ago. The facilities were dated.
"The squad, they were all great lads, talented rugby players, fresh out of school or club rugby with no idea how to be a professional.
"It was the Rebels’ third year. There was a lack of money, lack of resources."
It sounded something akin to Leinster of the 2000s. The video analysis would be carried out with 10-year old laptops. The players had to pay for their own lunch and their own health insurance.
"You would be going in to have a scan, say an MRI, the clinic would be asking you, a player, about invoices that hadn't been paid by the club. Can you imagine being asked a question like that at the Santry Sports Clinic?"
The deficit in resources and professional standards were compensated for by pure talent.
"It cancels out because they are athletically better. I don't know whether it is genetics, the environment, the climate or whatever but they have better skills and are more natural rugby players because they've grown up playing outside all the time," he said.
"They all play loads of different sports, have better hand-eye coordination and they train really hard. They had the talent.
"It is just the professional side hadn't caught up. It was the lack of funding in the game and not adapting to professionalism."
Even Wallabies like number eight Scott Higginbotham and scrum-half Luke Burgess surprised Sexton in terms of their commitment to the game.
"They were class rugby players, it just came easily to them," said Sexton.
"Having seen Johnny Sexton, who literally lives and breathes the sport day-in, day-out, these guys were just talented players who came in and came out. They didn't have the same dedication to the job, just a different culture."
While Sexton was less than impressed at the time, he has a different view now.
"I think the middle ground is right. In Ireland, we potentially focus too much on preparation (analysis, strength and conditioning etc) instead of playing spontaneously," he said.
"They are too spontaneous, too focussed on skills and running and not enough on preparation."
At the time, Sexton stuck to what he knew and believed in and that didn't always go down well.
"I didn't compromise my work ethic or attitude. But, that did ruffle feathers, lads would say: 'what are you doing mate? You don't need to be doing this. You don't need to be doing that."
The Rebels were different. They were old school. In Sexton's eyes, they were almost pre-historic in their methods.
"When it came to pre-season, the running was just outrageous. It was so hot you would be out on the pitch before 7am, so you could be off it before the sun would come up properly," he said.
"It was the toughest stuff I have ever done. I'm talking about running a close-to-vertical hill of 75-80 metres, ten sets of twelve reps of it with a minute rest between sets in 35-36 degree heat.
"There were guys passing out with dehydration, absolutely outrageous," he said.
"I saw a guy Lachlan Mitchell getting dragged off training out in Geelong with sun-stroke during the last session before Christmas when you get a two-week break."
It wasn't just the running that was outrageously outdated.
"They did full-contact in pre-season where they would absolutely smash each other in pre-season for months," he said.
"The pre-season is from October to January and they bring in contact from day-one to January. I think part of it comes from Rugby League, to harden them up."
This led to a spate of injuries, a next cab off the rank mentality, with no management of players – all before Super Rugby season began.
"You are already sticking out as the new guy in from a different country. You just get on with it, to fit in as best as possible," said Sexton.
"They still had that superiority complex down there, the southern hemisphere is better than the northern. You don't know anything, as an Irishman."
Sexton survived the hellish pre-season in a three-way competition for game time with New Zealander Pat Leafa and a little known Japanese hooker Shota Horie until an old problem came back to haunt him.
"I did my knee right before the start of the season, the ACL for a second time. I was out for ten months," he said.
In fairness, the club did take a conservative path, caring for his long-term health with cautious treatment. That entire first season was lost in 2014.
"It was almost a weight off the shoulders. My knee still wasn't right. In my head, I knew it was never right and I could get it fully fixed this time," he said.
"When it's a graft from your patella tendon, not the original ligament, it doesn't rupture, make a big noise and balloon up. It is more like a rope giving way, it’s anti-climactic, more of 'ooh, something just happened there.'"
At least, Sexton had the consolation of living with fellow Rebels Sam Jeffries, Bryce Hegarty, and Alex Rokobaro near Flemington racecourse, the home of the Melbourne Cup.
"It was great craic in that house. We worked really hard during the week. But, we enjoyed the weekends," he shared.
"You are anonymous in Melbourne because rugby is not a big sport there. That was refreshing. You don't feel like you are being watched, not that we were doing anything you wouldn't want to see, but you could just fully relax. That was good. It was just good fun."
The 10 months on the sidelines was almost more than the eager hooker could take.
"Initially, you are stuck. You have those five stages of grief, bargaining, those types of things. In the beginning, I was disputing the timeframe, targeting games I would be back for," he said.
"I am headstrong. They entertained that, just to humour me, so that I wasn't toxic in the environment because they knew I would bite back if they argued my position."
The weeks turned into three months and Sexton was only jogging.
"Friends and everyone you know in Ireland are checking on you and you have no good news for them," he reveals.
"You wanted something positive to share just to confirm to yourself that you made the right call to come over to Australia. People were skeptical about my decision and they were probably right.
"I remember Mike Ross said to me one night, when we were out, 'oh, I don't know about that move. They mightn't appreciate you.'
"What do you mean by that?" I asked.
"They love big hookers, who can throw offloads and pass. That's not you. You throw well. You scrum well. You work hard. I don't know if that's a good fit.
"Ultimately, he was right."
Eventually, Sexton made the bench in round three of the 2015 Super Rugby season and stayed there for the rest of the season without ever starting.
"It is so attritional. You have 15 games with just two bye weeks. You can't really train in-between and you're traveling a lot too. It is very short, very intense," he said.
"At the end of that season, with one year left, they offered me another contract, a minimum deal of 60,000Aus (€40,000) because they had signed James Hanson, the Wallaby from The Reds.
"It would have moved me back to where I was in Leinster, third or even fourth choice. I was like, 'what am I doing?'"
Then, the former Wallaby hooker Michael Foley, the head coach from the Westen Force, called to organise a transfer to Perth ahead of the 2016 season.
What looked like a new start turned into the most demoralising and devastating experience in his life.
"That was completely doomed from the start," he said.
"You know, when you go to a place and you know it's not right from the moment you step into it.
"It's kind of like the last stop on the train. It is like getting off the dart at Greystones. If you don't do something there, you might as well turn around and go back home.
"There are such nice people in Perth. Foles was such an intelligent coach and was brilliant to me, but it just wasn't for me.
"It is a quiet place. Everyone is on the run from something. It's a place of complete transience.
"I didn't really fit in with the lads, culturally," he added.
"It felt like no one was buying into it. No one felt like they were there for the long haul. There was so much uncertainty. No one really knew what was happening. It was like a permanent cloud hanging over the place and the Force ended up getting cut a year later."
It quickly dissolved into the lowest point in Sexton's career.
"I was lonely, very lonely, so isolated," he said, the eyes tearing up.
"I'm talking about going for coffee by myself and reading books just to kill time, going to the cinema by myself.
"There was one time I was so lonely I went to watch a movie by myself in a local cinema in Subiaco.
"I was queuing and I saw one of the lads from the Force, Rory Walton, with his girlfriend. I was so terrified that he would see me on my own, I went to the bathroom and waited until he was gone.
"I didn't want him to think I was that lonely that I would go to the cinema by myself. That just wasn't me. That was probably the lowest point."
Is it important to Sexton what other people think?
"It used to be – less now. It definitely used to be. It is a relentless drive to always be the best, never to give in," he said.
It was then the emotion began to kick-in, the tears welling up in his eyes.
"It is tough opening up about this. It was rough. It was six or seven months I would want to permanently delete from my life," he says.
"I didn't give a good account of myself, in terms of playing, my confidence was gone, the injuries piled up, all soft tissue, small stuff."
Then, there was the identity crisis that all those players who are brought into Irish provinces on Irish passports have to cope with.
"I felt they thought, 'why did they bring in this Irish guy, who isn't even any good? Who is he? Why don't they promote a hooker from the local system?
"I felt completely on the periphery of it. Now, a lot of it was probably in my own head. I just felt like an outsider when I was there. So alone."
Here was self-enforced isolation, tears shed at home alone in his apartment. The constant texts home, the 'facetimes' with friends and family, the calls in the middle of the night had those who cared for him worried.
Why didn't he come home? "It was just a matter of principle. Integrity is very important to me. I signed a contract, I was going to complete it. I didn't want anyone to think I threw the towel in," he said.
Military psychologist Mark Oostergo was there to lean on, to discuss how the game was linked to his personal life.
It was just as well Michael Sexton made the journey to Perth to live with big brother, to provide that crutch to lean on.
"Michael maybe didn't have the wisdom to give me advice. But, he was there," he recalled.
"The biggest thing was having someone there, who had seen what I could do.
"When you tell someone at the Force you are frustrated, they just think you are talking s**t because you're always injured and they've never seen how good you can be.
"Whereas when you talk to someone who has seen what you can do, Michael in this case, they believe in you, they remind you of that, not just nod at you and pay lip-service.
"In Ireland, I had substance as a player. I had achieved things for Belvedere, Leinster and the Ireland U20s. They knew what you could do. I had money in the bank, metaphorically.
"You are not some unknown import like I was there," he said.
"It is the very same as an Irish province signing a player out of the NPC in New Zealand. He comes over, gets injured, is not really training, not playing.
"It isn't long before people start asking, 'why is this Irish lad here? He was brought in ahead of the lads in the Academy. What the hell is going on?'"
In May or June of 2016, Foley was sacked, Sexton sat down with 10 or 12 others to be told their contracts would not be renewed.
"In my head, I was done with the Force, with Australia, with professional rugby," he said.
"I had my law degree from Trinity completed. I kept asking myself the question,' do I need to keep chasing the dream?'
"But, I hadn't fully accepted that rugby was over. I just wanted out of the Force. I didn't want to come home with my tail between my legs.
"I came back home for a month in August of 2016. There wasn't anything for me here," he said.
Rather than accept his fate, Sexton returned to Australia to play Shute Shield for Randwick, looking for one last contract. It never came.
It was time to come home.
TOMORROW - PART 3 OF THE TOM SEXTON INTERVIEW: "Rugby has taught me to live in the moment."