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The lives behind three rugby players representing Ireland

With Ireland’s campaign underway, we meet captain Johnny Sexton and props Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath, to gain an insight into representing Ireland

Johnny Sexton | out-half and captain | 90 caps for Ireland | from Rathgar, Dublin

When did playing for Ireland become a dream for you?

My rugby career started in Bective Rangers at five-years-old. John Nolan - who passed away a few years ago - set up the mini-rugby there. I kept in touch with him and he brought me to Lansdowne for a couple of games. And from then on I always aspired to play for Ireland.

What sticks with you from playing schools rugby for St Mary’s?

The grounding that Mary’s gave me, the lessons around the values of the game and the values of winning and losing have stuck with me. I’d like to think the school gave me a good upbringing in that regard.

What do you hope to take from previous captains you have played under like Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll?

You try and take bits from all of them, but you also have to be yourself. The best thing is to lead by example as a role model on and off the pitch. Paul and Brian didn’t say a lot. It was more their day-to-day [behaviour]: how they carried themselves, how they acted, how they trained. They are all the things you have to lead. For the other stuff, I rely heavily on the guys around me, and build on those relationships, and then one of those guys will take over from me.

What goes through your head when you’re making a decision at first receiver on the pitch for Ireland?

Often you’ve taken a picture before you get the ball. I’m trying to see the picture in front of me, but sometimes it’s about reacting. I’ll see space and have to change my decision. I try to process what’s happening on the inside and tell people what to do on the outside - the centres help with that.

Do you plan to go into coaching?

I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d love to do it. To start, you’d need to coach outside Ireland though really. I’m not sure I’m willing to relocate my whole family to do that. I’ve got a commerce degree from UCD, so I may go back and do a Masters in a similar area.

Where do you like to travel to get away from rugby?

My wife and I would have gone to Dubai because it’s guaranteed sun. But recently we’ve gone to Portugal, to Quinta do Lago [holiday resort]: it’s so good for the kids down there.

What do you do to unwind and relax in your spare time?

On my downtime I do really normal things. I love golf, looking after my kids, I watch Netflix, I go for a coffee and bring my kids to the park.

Tadhg Furlong | tighthead prop | 43 caps for Ireland | from Campile, Co Wexford

What does it feel like when you’re about to start a new Guinness Six Nations campaign?

You’re nervous and excited. Nervous because you know what’s coming up and excited because you know what you can achieve as a group.

What advice would you give to young players who look up to you as a role model?

Enjoy the game. Try and play as many sports as you can when you can. The skills are transferable - between GAA and rugby in my case. Don’t close yourself off from other sports too early. Go and watch live club rugby locally and pick up lessons there.

When did playing for Ireland become a reality?

At 15, I got thrown into the pathway as they call it, into south-east and Leinster and Ireland underage structures. You cop yourself on a bit at that age and throw yourself into rugby.

What’s the weekly schedule like for the Guinness Six Nations?

Monday and Tuesday you’re on the pitch, in the gym, and have lots of meetings reviewing and previewing the opposition. Wednesday is a down day; I go home and switch off. Thursday is a short, sharp day on the pitch. And we move into the Shelbourne Hotel and have the afternoon off. Lads might go out for food, have food in, or go to the cinema. Friday is the captain’s run and then time off. Then the match on Saturday and we stay in the Shelbourne on Saturday night. Then go home on Sunday and we reconvene on Sunday night.

What do you do to handle stress in your workplace?

A lot of it is time management and planning ahead. At times rugby consumes your life. One of the things I found really works for me is getting up early and planning out your week. I’m quite an early riser (6.30am), I like a nice, slow start to the day so I like to plan out my week on a Monday morning - that eliminates unnecessary stress. I also compartmentalise rugby to certain parts of the day and that helps me to switch off.

Where do you like to travel when you get the chance?

I love going home to Wexford to family and friends, and not many people ask about rugby. My mother comes from Whiddy Island, in Cork, just off Bantry. I have a lot of family down there and that helps me to unwind. I also went to the Amalfi Coast last year.

What do you do to unwind?

I like to get up early, make breakfast, and walk the dog. Meet people on a day off, cook a nice dinner, and chill.

Jack McGrath | loosehead prop | 56 caps for Ireland | from Templeogue, Dublin

What’s a diet like for a professional prop?

We have to be careful. We’d naturally be big men, so we have to be careful when we’re eating and what we’re eating. You have to get in your calories and your carbohydrates and protein on the day of a game, and after a game, or a hard training day. On off days you’d taper down.

What advice do you have for other people in high-intensity jobs?

It takes getting used to. I heard a great quote and put it on my phone; “Doubt can only be removed by action,” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I think for us, as sportspeople, when you prepare so well, a lot of the anxiety and doubt can be put to one side because you know you’ve prepared as well as you can. I try to prepare as best I can and focus on the minor details and back my ability.

You’re an ambassador for the IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings mental-wellbeing campaign. What wellbeing advice do you have for others?

For anxiety, for me it helps when I speak to people. It doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist, but even just a friend I trust. And it could be a small thing to them, but a big thing to you. When I feel it coming on [anxiety], I feel speaking about it helps to get it off my chest.

When did you start to believe you could play for Ireland?

I just fell into rugby by pure fluke. I was hanging around with my friends and they said they were going to give it a try and I went up to Mary’s club with them and then I went to Mary’s school. When I realised it was a potential career was in sixth year and there was chat of going into the Leinster Academy. You move on from there and it snowballs.

How has the move to Belfast been to play for Ulster?

I had a couple of sleepless nights [considering the move] and chatted to my wife. And she backed me 100 per cent. I owe a lot to her for that.

What’s the best thing about living in Belfast?

When I was living in Dublin, I was usually spending time with my family and friends. And when I’m up in Belfast I get a chance to do other things, so that side of it. I’m big into my music and I got to a Fontaines DC gig recently and went to see Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump in the Northern Ireland snooker championship. I’ve also got into sea swimming in Bangor.

Where do you like to travel to?

Myself and my wife got engaged in Dingle so we have a soft spot for Kerry. Also Portugal, as we got married there in Alvor.

Let’s bring #HomeAdvantage wherever we play.