My interview with Johnny Sexton in the Feb/Mar issue of @CaraMagazine. Apparently he got a fierce slagging on the flight over to Twickers. @seancronin2 tweeted from the plane: They’re making us read all sorts of crap going over on this flight!
It is one of Johnny Sexton’s first games for his new club, Racing Metro 92. He is being closely watched, not least by the club’s owner, Jacky Lorenzetti, who put together a €750,000 deal to sign Sexton a few months previously. The Irish media are also watching. They want see how things pan out for the first top-flight Irish player to sign for a French club.
Other people have their eyes on him too. The opposition No 7 is watching him because he wants to hit him hard. Sexton is the Ireland and Lions outhalf. He’s also the highest-paid rugby player in Europe. He’s a marked man.
The Racing coaches Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit are watching. And the club’s new skills coach – a certain Ronan O’Gara – is watching too.
Racing get a penalty and Johnny kicks to touch. With his right hand shielding his mouth from the opposition, he calls the next move. “Paris,” he says, pronouncing it the French way, “Paree”. It’s the codename for a complicated attacking move involving decoy runners and other deceptions.
Except his teammates think he said “pareil”, meaning “same again”, a repeat of the previous move. Johnny gets the ball and starts to run the “Paris” move. Outside him, the centres, wingers and full back are running a different move. It’s chaos, and the opposition No 7 gets his chance.
Welcome to ex-pat rugby in France, where you have to deal with a different culture, a different lifestyle, a different way of playing the game. Oh yeah, and a different language too.
It’s a story Johnny Sexton tells against himself. He can laugh at it now, but at the time, it wasn’t funny. He was trying to settle in at Racing, the team weren’t gelling well and they were languishing in 8th place in the Top 14 League.
Now, several months and a few victories later, he is more philosophical. It is Christmas Eve. Johnny has been released by Racing to train with the Ireland team, and has been released from Christmas shopping by wife Laura to spend some time with CARA.
“I am definitely at home in France lifestyle-wise,” he says. “But rugby-wise, no. I’m a million miles away from being settled there. We’re struggling a bit, to be honest.”
Racing is an old-style club than has been rejuvanated with new money. Property tycoon Lorenzetti has spent millions assembling some of the top rugby players in the world. But great individuals don’t always make a great team. “In terms of the quality of our performances, we’re no where near when we should be for the standard of players that we have,” he admits.
Away from the pitch, however, Mr and Mrs Sexton are adapting well to their new life in Paris. “I’m living in Châtenay-Malabry. It’s a very nice area, very suburban. We’re maybe 10kms from Versailles and about 15kms from the 16th (arrondissement), which is a very nice area of Paris. We’re in a house that has been divided into apartments. We love it there,” says Johnny.
They haven’t had to deal with the French authorities – “the club takes care of pretty much everything” – and the only contact they’ve had with local tradesmen is when Johnny wanted to get a satellite dish fitted so he could watch his old club Leinster play.
You get a sense that leaving Leinster was quite a wrench, and that part of him is still there. “It was very strange watching the boys run out in the Aviva [for their Heineken Cup match against Northampton in December] and you’ve nothing to do with it. You’re not even injured watching it. It’s just very strange. You don’t know the game plan, you don’t know how they’ve prepared, you don’t know what the talk’s been like during the week,” he says.
“I watch all their games on Sky,” he says. “I don’t have RTE or TG4, but I might pop over to the O’Garas to watch a couple of games. They’ve brought their Irish [satellite] box with them.”
The entente cordiale between the Sexton and O’Gara will surprise some rugby people. The pair were rivals for the out-half jersey on the Irish team for years and played opposite each other in many a bitter Leinster-Munster derby game.
Initially, there was no love lost between them. In his new book, Becoming a Lion (Penguin Ireland), Johnny gives an honest account of their relationship, recalling that O’Gara called him a “nobody” in their early encounters. There is a famous photo of Johnny leaning over O’Gara and screaming something at him during Leinster’s semi-final win over Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final.
And in the recent TV documentary about O’Gara, entitled ROG and broadcast in January, O’Gara tells his side of the story. “There’s a bit of me in him, and him in me,” O’Gara says, before admitting that Sexton’s friendship means a lot to him now that they’re both involved at Racing Metro 92.
For Johnny too, the relationshiop has mellowed into friendship. Their wives are friends too, and there’s an easy back-and-forth between the two households. There is still, however, one area in which O’Gara holds the upper hand: his French is better.
“My French is coming along. I think I’m trying to be too good at times. I’m trying to structure my sentences really well. I think ROG has got the knack. He can just speak. He doesn’t really use tenses at all, but they understand him. He comes across quite well, whereas I’m going back to my Leaving Cert and trying to put everything in the perfect place,” he laughs.
For now, Johnny has to put his life in Paris and Racing’s Top 14 campaign to one side. It’s Six Nations time, Ireland time, Joe Schmidt time. As part of his contract, he is released to play for Ireland during in February and March to take part in rugby’s oldest competition.
He’s back under the eye of his old Leinster coach, Joe Schmidt, who took over as Ireland coach last year. Johnny is a big fan of Schmidt’s, and they both share an almost obsessive concern for detailed preparation.
“I’ve haven’t been as excited about a Six Nations as I am about this one coming up,” says Johnny. “The Six Nations is still a massive tournament. I’d say, if we’re being honest, for a couple of years, maybe it wasn’t.
“Maybe that was what the problem was. You know the Heineken Cup is such a big thing for the provinces. For me, I’m not going to be in the Heinken Cup this year, so my focus will be very much on the Six Nations.
“Our preparation will be very much game by game,” says Johnny. “We start with Scotland and I don’t think we’ll look very much further than that. It will be game-by-game focus and then hopefully the results will look after themselves.
“With Joe anyway, we tend not to set goals. We just train day to day and try to have our values and words that we try to live by. And if we do that to the best of our ability, then we have a chance.”
Ireland’s preparation for the Six Nations in the series of matches in November was something of a mixed bag: a win over Samoa, a tame loss to Australia, and then that heart-stopping, last-minute loss to New Zealand.
The match against New Zealand was a classic and, with the match all but over, Ireland led by 22 points to 17. Then, with the last play of the game, New Zealand scored, and the dream of Ireland’s first victory over them in 108 years died a brave death.
“I’d say it was the worst I’ve felt after a match ever,” says Johnny now, the memory still raw. “Just the way it all happened, the way we lost in the last second of injury time. To come so close and then to get it taken away at the end was devastating. It was tough to take.”
In the course of the game, Johnny hit the post with a conversion and missed a penalty late in the second half that might have put Ireland out of sight.
“It was one of those ones. I hit it [the penalty] and I thought it was good. I looked up and I thought it was going through and at the last minute it just faded off. It was a good strike. I don’t know if there was a little bit of a breeze, or I just didn’t get all of it. You can look at the video a million times…
“I have massive regrets over it obviously. There was part of me that kind of wishes I’d come off earlier, because I was struggling a bit with injuries that I had going into the game, but there’s part of me that was proud that I stayed on and keep going until I got taken off.
“Just sometimes you look back on it and say ‘Oh God I wish I just came off and then I wouldn’t have to live with that missed kick’. But then there’s other times, if I’d come off, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself then either.”
With Joe, we don’t set goals.
We have these words that we try to live by
Johnny Sexton is 28, just at his peak as a player. He learned his rugby at St Mary’s College in Rathmines and famously kicked a last-gasp drop goal to win them the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 2002. However, he wasn’t picked up by the Leinster Rugby Academy and might easily have drifted out of the game.
Mark McDermott, coach of the Ireland Under-21s team, happened to spot him playing for St Mary’s club. He scored two tries and kicked most of his goals that day and an Academy contract soon followed.
As a youngster, Johnny took part-time jobs in nearly every shop or business near his home in Rathgar. His mother runs a hairdressing salon in the area and his dad Jerry is a stalwart of Bective Rugby Club in Dublin’s Donnybrook.
His parents split up when Johnny was 15 and he threw himself into sport – any sport. It was around this time that his friendship with Laura (they met in Rathgar Tennis Club as 13-year-olds) deepened. They got married last July.
For a while, it looked like their future was assured, mapped out before them. Laura was a teacher at Loretto on the Green; Johnny was the Leinster and Ireland out-half. Then, when his contract with the Irish Rugby Football Union was up for renewal, Racing made an offer that was difficult to refuse.
People who know Johnny well – people like his godfather Billy Keane from Listowel – remark on a certain grounded, down-to-earth quality he has. Now, at the start of a new Six Nations campaign and of a new life in France, it’s a quality he will need to draw on more than ever.
The Feb/Mar issue of Cara is available here.