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
He almost didn’t make it as a professional rugby player. You have no idea how close you came to never hearing of Johnny Sexton. As a teenager, he didn’t develop the classic body shape of a player in the pro era. Even now, he has the sloping shoulders of a Burgundy, rather than the hard shoulders of a Bordeaux.
“Usually, the best players get picked for the academy straight out of school. I didn’t, so it was looking bleak for me.”
He had notions of studying medicine, but didn’t get the required points, and wound up doing chemical engineering (“Don’t ask!”) in UCD instead.
He hated it, soon dropped out and found himself, at 19, playing for St Mary’s in the All Ireland League while working for Friends First.
“I started off making coffee and tea and doing small jobs around the office. By the end of it, I was answering the phones to, you know, farmers looking for a loan for a Massey Ferguson or a John Deere, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’m good for it’!”
As he says himself, he “fluked” his way into his first professional contract.
Mark McDermott, the Ireland U-21 coach, was at Templeville Road one day to watch Gareth Steenson, Dungannon’s fly-half. Johnny scored two tries and landed most of his kicks. He was invited into the academy. After a year, Michael Cheika considered him ready for the Leinster squad – but it still wasn’t happening quickly enough for him.
“I was stroppy and impatient,” he says.
At 21, the age at which Brian O’Driscoll revealed himself to the world with a hat-trick of tries in this same city, Johnny was wondering if it was ever going to happen for him.
“I was always the eighth choice back for Leinster and I always needed one injury to get in.”
When Felipe Contepomi injured himself in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster, he grabbed the opportunity like a man who thought there might not be another. He helped steer Leinster to a first European Cup and put an end to their reputation as inveterate bottlers – and, overnight, acquired a stage name.
“I think it was Michael Cheika at a press conference who first called me Johnny. But I was never Johnny. I was named Jonathan but everyone knew me as Jonno. Like, Laura calls me Jonno. All my old school mates still call me Jonno. My family call me Jonno. But Johnny has kind of stuck. I hated it at the start, but now I sign e-mails and stuff with the name Johnny. I suppose it kind of grew on me.”
As “Johnny” Sexton, all the pieces seemed to fall into place. He took the Ireland number 10 jersey from O’Gara (not without a certain amount of ugliness), played in a World Cup and won two more European Cups, an Amlin Challenge Cup and a Pro 12. Four bountiful years culminated, just as his book does, with him becoming a Lion. And a winning Lion.
It’s difficult for many to separate the series victory over Australia from the decision to drop O’Driscoll for the third and decisive test. He deals with it in the book – “It’s a shock. A huge shock” – but he doesn’t allow it to overshadow the narrative.
“Gatland made the decision,” he says now. “All of Wales thought he was right, all of Ireland thought he was wrong. That’s the politics of the Lions. But you’re very selfish as a professional. I felt for Brian for a day or two days. Then you have to go out and play. As it happens, I got on really well with Johnny Davies, so you can’t be seen to be saying, ‘Ah, this is terrible,’ because you’ve got to go out and play with the guy.
“I remember getting picked for Ireland once and seeing the Munster players sympathising with Rog. I could see them talking to him. And I was going out to play with these guys, thinking, they don’t want to play with me, they want Rog. That can be very unsettling for a player.”
He misses home – and he’s not too proud to admit that he misses Friday and Saturday nights in Ballsbridge.
“And I know some people will say, if you loved Leinster that much, you wouldn’t have left. And if it were someone else, I’d probably be the cynic saying that. But you miss everything about home. You miss the people. You miss, yeah, being recognised.
“It’s very different in Paris. At times, you think, God, I could live here forever. Other times, you think, God, I just want to go home. It’s still in that stage where there’s a lot of ups and downs.
“With foreign players, your motives for being here are being questioned by the French players. All I can do is make sure to work hard and hopefully they’ll see that I’m here for the right reasons and that I’m giving everything.”
He’s never given less than that.