Six Nations - Ireland v France: Johnny Sexton looking forward to reunion with formidable French

The expected French targeting of Ireland’s vastly experienced outhalf is, of course, a mark of respect

Outside of Ireland, French rugby has been the biggest part of Johnny Sexton’s career. He retains many fond memories of his two seasons with Racing 92 in Paris and playing all over France, yet it’s been an often difficult, fractious relationship.

Even when forced to sit in the stands at last year’s round two game against France in the Stade de France, when the camera panned on Sexton he was booed like a pantomime villain. Why?

That was nothing compared to the manner in which he has been targeted by French players, both by name in advance and on the pitch.

But even some of the cheap shots paled in comparison to the outrageous comments by the neurologist Jean-François Chermann, who had previously advised Sexton to take a 12-week break after he sustained three confirmed concussions in less than 12 months during the player’s time with Racing.


Before the game two yeas ago, Chermann blithely informed Midi Olimpique that Sexton had suffered 30 concussions during his career, a claim which fed some sort of cheap pre-match narrative around the Irish captain. Sexton and James Ryan were ultimately ruled out after not completing all their return-to-play protocols.

Chermann apologised the next day.

“I regret the wrong I have done to the player,” he said.

But aside from breaching the doctor-patient relationship, the damage was done. It’s out there on the internet. It’s been regurgitated since – without the apology the next day of course!

Sexton still remains remarkably sanguine about it all and prior to Saturday’s huge Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium, prefers to accentuate the positives from his time in France.

“From my point of view, I had a great couple of years there. I’ve got some great friends there. My son [Luca] was born there. So for me, it’s fond memories. It’s these weeks that things go the other way from the other side. Hopefully, it won’t this week but we’ll wait and see,” he said with a wry grin.

But then again, it was only Wednesday.

“But no, it hasn’t soured it,” he continued. “I have great memories of living there and loved the country. I always think it’s a great challenge playing against them. Their supporters are fantastic, they’ll travel well at the weekend I’m sure like ours did last week.”

Prior to joining Racing in 2013, Sexton ruefully recalled being told that the club would be moving from its decaying old Stade Yves-du-Manoir in Colombes to what is now La Defense Arena within six months, but ultimately that didn’t happen until November 2017.

“So, we used to love playing away,” he admitted, albeit selections sometimes varied between home and away games, and he also appreciated the French mentality when playing at home.

For all his frustrations with a Racing team in transition, he sees now that finding different ways to win games without as much structure helped make him a better player.

“I also learned a lot culturally, like what not to do. I learned a lot about myself in terms of leadership, more so in what not to do.”

Asked by the club president Jacky Lorenzetti to change the club’s culture and bring a winning mentality, Sexton admits: “I went in all guns blazing and figured out that there wasn’t that many people there to do the same thing, whereas I should have tried to make friends first and build relationships, and it stood to me since.

“When there are new guys coming into the environment here you need to build relationships with people and Andy is big on that. So, it was a good eye-opener for me, and then when you’re coming from a good place in terms of standards, at least you’ve got a basis to work off with someone.”

Asked to draw comparisons between French and Irish rugby players, Sexton said: “I wouldn’t say we’re totally different but the way we play the game is slightly different. Obviously, the size they have, we don’t have that. You can clearly see that.

“There’s no point in saying we do but we’ve got some special physical guys as well in our front five and our back row, just a slightly different profile but gifted in their own way athletically and talent-wise. So look, we’re very happy with where we’re at. We acknowledge what a great team they are – 14 wins in a row is incredible so they’re a top, top team.”

The targeting and pantomime villain stuff is, of course, a backhanded mark of respect for Sexton as a player and his importance to Irish teams.

Since his first appearance against them in 2010 as a replacement, Sexton has subsequently started 11 games against France, with six wins, one draw and four defeats. Some record for any outhalf against France, and especially an Irish one.

Indeed, he had been on the winning side in six out of seven meetings before the defeat behind closed doors in the rescheduled game in October 2020, before being ruled out of the last two losses against Les Bleus.

He’d like to think he could have made a difference.

“Of course. That’s the way you always feel. I’m sure the bench is sitting there going they feel the same. It was very frustrating having to sit in the stand watching the last couple of games but I’m sure now if I’m playing at the weekend that they’ll have a plan to come and put pressure on me, shut me down. I’ll have to deal with that as well so lots to consider.”

Hmm. As ever.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times