Life is short, so let's wish Sexton well on his adventure in Paris
What do Ollie Campbell, Jackie Kyle, David Humphries, Tony Ward and Paul Dean have in common? They were all great outhalves. Past tense. Their time, as a player, has gone and will never return.
Life as a rugby player, for these wonderful men and us all, is short. We can never take rugby or life for granted. It is finite. Enjoy every precious moment.
Life passes with incredible speed. This week my son turned 18. On his sixth birthday he ran onto Donnybrook as the Leinster mascot, holding Reggy Corrigan’s hand. Those years seem to have passed in the blink of an eye.
Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, are the only players in that Leinster team that have not retired.
When you are a player the time is so magical that you never believe the days will end. The reality of not playing is beyond your full comprehension. You feel ten foot tall and bullet proof.
Using the word “love” to describe the relationship between a sportsmen and his sport is accurate. There is sacrifice, commitment, and dedication, the forsaking of all others and there is indescribable joy.
When rugby was amateur one of its greatest joys for players was travel. As a teenager I remember meeting the great Australian fullback, Roger Gould. His stories of living and playing in Argentina mesmerised me. The romance of packing your boots and gum shield and playing in exotic locations captivate my imagination.
Time of adventure
So when my time came, even though I was a very average player, I travelled and played with clubs across America and Europe. It was a time of adventure, fun and wonder for a boy from suburban Sydney.The hospitality, local customs and the people remain with me to this day.
One of my only regrets was not playing for a French club. I played in a sevens tournaments in Paris in the mid 1980s and was asked to return and play for the Paris University Club. That European summer I returned to Australia and never played for PUC. My father thought that at 24, even though I had finished university and held a degree, I was wasting my life. Looking back, it was the opposite. I was not earning much money but I had never been so alive.
If Matt Williams at 53 could give Matt Williams at 24 some advice, it would be to stay and live in Paris, dance with every girl, play in every rugby game, go on every tour and suck the carefree marrow out of life.
Then we were amateurs.
For leading Irish professional players the great joy of playing outside Ireland has been very difficult to achieve. There is an incredible loyalty from Irish players to their province and the national jersey.
There is also the wrong perception that leaving would somehow be an act of betrayal.
I look back at the great men I coached in Ireland and I wish they could have played for a few seasons in France. It would have considerably weakened Leinster ,but it would have been great for them as men. I know a lot of them wanted to go for the life experience but for many reasons, not just the tax breaks, they did not go.
Jonny Sexton should depart to Racing Metro with the blessing of all in Irish rugby. His individual talent has won games for both Ireland and Leinster. He will be the starting Lions Test outhalf. He is a fierce competitor and he is a winner. He has given his all in every game he has ever played. Now Jonny is doing something for himself. He and his manager, Fintan Drury, who is a friend I respect, should not be criticised for moving to France.
Jonny has made a brave choice that will provide a life changing experience to his young life. If playing in the Top 14 is a dream he harbours, he is justified to see it come to fruition when his playing dreams can still be made into reality.
The Top 14 is the premier club competition in the world. As I have said on many occasions in this column, the Top 14 will draw the best players in the world into its irresistible vortex of money, prestige, world class competition and the wonderful French culture. Jonny is joining a club with huge ambitions to be a power in this intoxicating environment.
Jonny will be very well paid to live in the great city of Paris, to do something he excels at and loves. He is a tall poppy. Let’s not cut him down.
To Jonny, you are embarking on a great adventure. You owe yourself happiness and success. The time to act is now, when you are young enough to enjoy it. You owe us nothing. I truly wish you every success. Ireland awaits your return.
PS: In last week’s column the Christian names of Mark Anscombe and Simon Mannix were published incorrectly. I could use the excuse that there are so many New Zealand coaches in Ireland that I get confused . . . but I won’t. I apologise to both Mark and Simon. The error and any offence were unintentional.