Not all heroes wear a big S on their backs. One wears the number 10 on his. They call him Johnny Sexton.
Ireland’s rugby grand-slam victory last Saturday was about so much more than scrums, offloads, ball handling and turnovers. It was about the power of fraternity, the oft-neglected triplet of the republican ideal. That sense of unity was palpable within the panel of players, who hail from Leinster, Ulster, Connacht, Munster, Australia and New Zealand. It was evident between the players and their coaches and between the team and their supporters in the Aviva Stadium. Most especially, it was there between the squad and the members of the nation willing them on.
At its nexus was Sexton, the captain. When the team needed a boost of motivation on the pitch, he gestured, as is his wont, to the spectators in the stands like an orchestra conductor urging them to raise the tempo; as if one last, lusty rendition of the Fields of Athenry could push them over the line. In a prematch day media conference, he was asked what inspired the team as it prepared to face England, the final hurdle in winning the championship. Making their families and the country proud, replied the outhalf. Their ambition was not just to win – it was to give Ireland “a lift”, he said. We knew it wasn’t just PR guff, because Sexton doesn’t do guff.
Everyone benefits from having a role model and, before our eyes, he has grown into one. Since his early forays and that tawdry cameo from a Leinster v Munster match when he stood bawling triumphantly over his prostrate opposite number Ronan O’Gara, his Ireland outhalf predecessor, rugby fans have watched the Rathgar native mature into a leader. We have seen him become a father and his hair turn grey, though not necessarily in that order, and heard him admit his feeling of guilt over that incident with O’Gara, who had been his own role model.
The unflinching determination that has won him grand slam, Six Nations, Triple Crown, European Cup, Lions and World Player of the Year awards has earned him a reputation for dourness. That reputation made his post-match joy all the sweeter to behold on Saturday and guarantees a chuckle every time he pronounces in that Mace TV commercial: “Friendly... very important”. Young players joining the Leinster and Ireland camps are said to be scared of not meeting his exacting standards because of the admiration they have for their 37-year-old captain.
We should be careful which ones we elevate to that pedestal. Some want only to exploit their celebrity for their own swagger and gain
In our superficial age of instant celebrity and the still-raw history of political, religious and business leaders who operated according to the dictum “do as I say, not as I do”, role models can be hard to find. Often, we search for them on the sports field, a fertile nursery for noble endeavour, rules of conduct, and team spirit. Sometimes, that instinct proves correct. Sonia O’Sullivan, for one, was an inspiration on the athletics track, both in victory and adversity.
Recent reports about a once-prominent GAA player feigning cancer to extract money from people are, however, a reminder of the folly of the assumption that all sports stars make good role models. We should be careful which ones we elevate to that pedestal. Some want only to exploit their celebrity for their own swagger and gain. As the American former professional basketball player Charles Barkley said: “I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
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Sexton eschews public attention unless the job requires it. He does not like speaking about his family, though he embraces them in the happiest moments of his career. Before last weekend’s match, which was a landmark one for him, he deflected questions about the personal aspects of his last appearance in a Six Nations game, insisting it was about the team and the performance. Reportedly, such was his reluctance to raise the championship trophy aloft on his own as captain after the match – when he set a new points-scoring record in the tournament – that Ireland coach Andy Farrell had to insist he do so.
Rugby suffers from reverse class snobbery, with more than a modicum of justification. Despite work by the IRFU to broaden its social scope, it remains primarily the sport of private boys’ schools, particularly in Leinster where it is almost a family business. For this reason and, perhaps, because of the physical danger involved, some people may scoff at the notion of Sexton being a national role model, but that is to ignore the sport’s unifying power.
Ireland is a 32-county team which England valiantly came to play, receiving a prolonged standing ovation at Lansdowne Road during the most violent times of the Troubles, when the rugby unions of Scotland and Wales refused to play here. An early resistance by players from south of the Border to singing Ireland’s Call, the compromise rugby anthem for all-Ireland, has been replaced by a full-throated chorus before each game by all players.
It is notable that there were no civic celebrations after last weekend’s history-making first grand slam victory in Dublin. As he has said, there is work still to be done
Sexton epitomises his sport’s facility for transcending historic barriers. Though reared in a well-to-do Dublin suburb, both his parents are from west Munster, where the sport is less associated with class privilege than it is in Leinster. His roots are planted deep in his father’s home county of Kerry, where the fly-half has spent many summer holidays.
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If a hero represents the best of us, a role model represents the best of us yet to come. Sexton’s ethos is that there is always something bigger to aim for. Next is the Rugby World Cup in September. It is notable that there were no civic celebrations after last weekend’s history-making first grand slam victory in Dublin. As he has said, there is work still to be done.
One of the requisite qualities of good role models is that they do not demand any more of others than they do of themselves. They lead by example. Therein lies a superpower that can lift a country.