It’s a long way from Leinster: Johnny Sexton on settling abroad
Rugby player Johnny Sexton never imagined he would leave the team he loved but events led him and his childhood sweetheart to Paris, where settling has been a challenge, he tells Paul Howard
Jonathan Sexton in Parc de Sceaux, Paris. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk
Childhood sweethearts: Jonny Sexton with his wife Laura, left, on their wedding day in July. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
Jonathan Sexton in action for Leinster, the team he supported since he was a boy. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ronan and Johnny. They’ve been connected in the public imagination for so long now that it comes as a genuine disappointment to discover that they’re not living together in Paris, rubbing along awkwardly in a poky apartment near the centre of the city, Ronan playing the wisecracking, come-day, go-day Matthau figure to Johnny’s fastidious, buttoned-down Lemmon.
No; crushingly, it turns out that Ronan, Jessica and their children have their own place, while Johnny and Laura live here, in an enormous house in Châtenay-Malabry, a quiet suburb 10 km southwest of the city centre.
“We only have an apartment in here,” he says, as he slips the key in the door. He laughs because he knows what you were probably thinking. No wonder he walked away from Leinster. “Please don’t say we live in a mansion!”
He is good and thoughtful company tonight. A little tired, but content. Or as content as Johnny – it’s actually “Johnno”, but more of that later – allows himself to be in his working life.
Rugby players in France put in a full working week. Even on match days with an evening kick-off, they’re expected to clock in at 10am.
When he was at Leinster, he spent the day of a home game sitting in his apartment in Goatstown in Dublin. Four hours before kick-off, he took out the ledger in which he wrote down his game plan for the match, stared at it for a couple of hours, then set off for the RDS.
But then, life for Johnny and the childhood sweetheart he married 11 weeks ago has been a series of adjustments. There’s the rugby (going okay), the language (coming on) and remembering to drive anti- clockwise around roundabouts (getting there). And, of course the mundane practicalities of turning their modest-sized apartment into a home: involving visits to Ikea and debates on flatpack furniture assemblage.
You quickly realise that Johnny and Laura are just like thousands of other emigrant Irish couples, waiting for the sharp edges of their new world to soften into something like permanence. “The first couple of weeks were really tough,” he says, “especially for Laura. I was at the club all day. I was gone from nine until six. But at least I’ve got somewhere to go every day and something to focus on. Laura was locked up here in this place by herself, and there was nothing here.”
It was tougher still because moving to another country never figured anywhere in their life plan.
At the start of the year, they were two homebirds with a neat, grid-like order to their lives. Johnny played rugby for Leinster, the team he supported as a boy, while Laura was a teacher in Loreto on the Green, the school she attended when they met as 13-year-olds in Rathgar Tennis Club. They liked the easy familiarity of their world, they didn’t want it to end.
Johnny makes that much clear in Becoming a Lion, a fascinating and achingly honest book that follows the sine wave of the last 12 months of his life.
With his contract up for renewal, he and his agent, Fintan Drury, entered into negotiations with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and quickly discovered that his employer’s estimation of his worth fell far short of his own and, more significantly, that of Racing Metro president Jacky Lorenzetti, who wanted to make him one of the highest-paid players in the world.
He says he never expected the union to match Racing’s offer, but having played a lead role in three Heineken Cup triumphs, he thought he deserved to be on the same money as Irish rugby’s top earners.
“I always thought I’d be a one-club man,” he says, “but when the first offer [from the IRFU] came in – I mention it in the book – it really pissed me off.
“Look, they’re trying to do what’s best for Irish rugby. It’s a business, but I kind of felt, in the last three years Leinster had won three European Cups and a Magners League and I was wearing the number 10 shirt. I was a big part of it.
“Maybe the IRFU just didn’t rate me. Maybe I’ve too high an opinion of myself – that went through my head, but I always thought, while the negotiations were going on, that it was going to get sorted out and that it was all just a game.
“I remember speaking to Joe [Schmidt, the former Leinster, now Ireland, coach] the night before and he said to me, ‘Can you give me 24 hours?’ and I thought, ‘It’s going to get done.’
“Then I spoke to the IRFU the following morning, before Joe even got back to me, and the way the conversation went was, well, we’ve given you the best offer we can give.”
And that was it. Thanks for everything.
When the end was confirmed, he describes in the book how he lay down on his bed and cried. “It was a weight off my shoulders that it was finally done,” he says, “but I also felt guilty that I was the one to break up the group.”