Johnny Sexton interview: Despite injury the outhalf is ready for a big year
Ireland number 10 looks ahead to the Six Nations, World Cup and a return to Leinster
Johnny Sexton talks Racing Métro, ‘Charlie Hebdo’, fatherhood, goal-kicking and going to the Louvre to “spend 40 quid on two coffees”. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie
He’s home and in Ireland camp for three weeks for a targeted comeback in round two at home to France. He’s also coming home with a four-year deal to play for Leinster, and he’s glad about all of that. It’s good to be home and it’s good to be coming home.
He will be especially glad to bring Laura home along with their seven-month-old son, Luca, to the warm embrace of their extended families. He may have had it tough to begin with at Racing Métro, but now that he approaches the endgame of his two-year French sojourn, a little part of Johnny Sexton will always belong to Racing, and will always be Parisian.
If nothing else it’s been eventful. He struggled with the rugby treadmill initially after landing in Paris almost directly after a Lions’ tour. He learned to play with a new team and learned a new language. There were a tad too many injuries, and a club versus country tug-of-war for his services, and then there was negotiating a deal to come home. And now it’s nearly over.
“I honestly can’t believe it’s nearly done. The quickest part of the year is the Six Nations. You’re just thinking about ‘the next game’, ‘the next game’. The weeks just fly by, and the next thing you know it’s the end of March, and then I’ve got two months left. And I’m just like ‘where has the time gone?’”
He has always been typically and endearingly candid about the difficulties he had settling in with Racing for the first few months. He couldn’t stop thinking about a decision he might have to make 12 months down the line. He told himself to forget about Leinster and started to enjoy his new surroundings and club more. And now that he is coming back to Leinster, he likes Racing and Paris more than ever.
“Now, when I finish and I look back, I’ll think I loved my time there, and if I was to advise other players who are thinking about going I’d say ‘finish your international career first’. Whether it’s decided for you and you’re not getting picked any more, or you decide, then go, because it’s an amazing place.”
This is all the truer, he says, for foreign non-internationals or overseas players no longer playing for their countries, what with two weeks off in November, a week over Christmas and two more weeks during the Six Nations. The Top 14 may be over-hyped, a monster that is threatening to gobble up the world game, but like it or loathe it, it’s got va-va-voom.
“And sometimes the rugby is brilliant; I would defend it. During the December-January period it’s an absolute slog. It’s like a marathon, but after the Six Nations, that’s when you see the good rugby. Clubs pick their best team for the rest of the season and go for it. There’s a totally different intensity.”
Like virtually all his teammates, Sexton and his young family reside in the southwestern suburb of Le Plessis-Robinson, where the club president Jacky Lorenzetti built the Racing training centre, offices, academy, gym, artificial and grass pitches, as well as his wine and estate businesses, some 8km outside Paris.
“And four hours in traffic if you decide to drive at 5pm,” he says knowingly. It’s different, he admits, from playing in one of the cities in the southern rugby hotbed, such as Toulon. “I don’t think you get the full experience in Paris, but it’s a fantastic city.”
He recently texted Rhys Ruddock with a list of places to go and things to do prior to the flanker taking a weekend break in Paris. “It’s going to be amazing for him, and now it’s just normal for me, like to go to the Louvre, and spend 40 quid on two coffees,” Sexton says, laughing.
“It’s crazy when you drive past the Eiffel Tower and you hardly look any more, or drive through the Arc de Triomphe roundabout and you’re not scared. But whenever I go back to Paris I’ll always know my way around and I’ll always have a connection with it. I won’t ever look at it the same.”
He was made more aware of this connection, like many of the 12 million-plus inhabitants of Paris and its suburbs, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the surreal days which ensued. “That was really strange. The three or four days were crazy. All the time I was watching Sky News and they were saying ‘this is just a decoy. These two guys have strategically got hostages in both places and this is going to be bigger somewhere else’.
“That’s what worried us and some of the things didn’t happen too far from our doorstep. One of the shootings was in Montrouge [where a French policewoman was murdered]. I drive through Montrouge every time I go into town. It’s about 4km from our house, which is not far but not close. It was a crazy couple of days and we didn’t know whether Paris would be the same. It has gone back to relatively normal.”
It was also “incredible” to behold how the city pulled together. “I’d be so proud if I was French. I don’t know how brave I would have been, even with the magazine coming out again. All around Paris there is the poster with the words ‘Je suis Charlie’ and the middle finger has been changed into a pencil with blood dripping off it. That is everywhere.”
A part of him will also always be a Racing Métro man. It’s an iconic French club, with an iconic jersey and emblem. “I’d like to think I’ve a good relationship with the president and the staff there. I’ve had a good go at the language. I can communicate in it, and they respect that and the president said to me ‘if you come back to France, you come back to Racing’.”
He feels bad for only having played seven games this campaign and, given he will leave in the summer, feels a real sense of duty to finish up with a cherished bouclier de Brennus for the first time at the club since 1990, or a European Cup. “Then I could look back on it with really fond memories,” he says, mindful that he will be remembered more for his last two months there than any other period.
He also became a husband and a father during his time in Paris. One of the positives about his enforced 12-week lay-off, aside from having another small pre-season, was having more time with Luca.
“He’s got his own personality. He’s been great, although he’s an early riser. He likes to go to bed at 7pm every night and we get a little time to chill out every evening. It’s been great. I’m lucky I’ve got Laura. Rugby players are very selfish. You have to look after your recovery, your sleep, your nutrition; you’ve got to get all that right.” Another plus to coming home is that, true to his wishes, his son might one day see him play for Leinster.
Sexton is chatting freely in a Dublin restaurant. You arrive early only to find he has turned up ahead of you, and has found a quiet seat at the back away from the rest of the Sunday brunchers-cum-lunchers. Over the course of an hour in his company, he is as honest, thoughtful and interesting as ever, and you are reminded as to how knowledgeable and passionate he is about the game. It’s little wonder he and Joe Schmidt love having coffee together.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Sexton ever walking away from the game entirely, and a career, at least part-time, in coaching and/or punditry after playing would be easily within his remit. He would certainly have the passion for coaching and the articulate nature for punditry.
He is due to see his specialist tomorrow and is confident he will be passed fit for Ireland’s second game at home to France on Saturday week. He may be the best outhalf in Europe, a Lions test-series and Six Nations winning outhalf at that, and you get the impression that if Schmidt has a favourite player, it is most probably Sexton. Yet, deferentially, he repeatedly says “if Joe thought it was best for the team for me to play, yeah I think I would be ready.
“The benefit of this is that I’ve got three weeks in camp, whereas if I was fit I’d have been here for a couple of days and then gone back to play against Lyon. I’d miss a lot of preparation and I could have picked up a knock, but instead I’ve got three weeks’ prep. I don’t know what Joe is going to do, but I will do everything I can in training to prove that I can do it. And sometimes I feel I play my best rugby when I’m fresh.”
As an example, ironically, his first ever game for Schmidt was in the sixth game of the 2010-11 season after injury had delayed his comeback, when pitched straight into a Heineken Cup game. Leinster beat Racing Métro 38-22 at the RDS.
“And I hadn’t played in 12 weeks that day,” he explains, recalling with a wry smile how Schmidt decided Isa Nacewa should keep the kicking duties so as to ease Sexton back in.
“I was cross with him [Schmidt]. Because I’d had a quad tear he said: ‘I don’t want you to risk it, and then you can take them the next week’.”
Nacewa kicked five out of eight, and the following week Sexton kicked seven out of seven and scored a try in accounting for all of Leinster’s points in a 25-23 win over Saracens at Wembley. “I gave him a smile when we came back in.”
That he will be “targeted” goes with the territory. Being brave as well as strong, and with good tackling technique, he will never shy away from that aspect of his job. Indeed, a la Jonny Wilkinson, you sometimes wonder if he is too brave for his own good.
“It’s part of the game. The ‘10s’ that I admired growing up, most of them were like Stephen Larkham and Jonny Wilkinson, these type of guys. They were as good a tackler as anyone else on the pitch. I’ve always liked that part of the game. I’ve missed tackles. I’ve missed important tackles. I wouldn’t be laid off for 12 weeks if I had a perfect tackle technique but I think it’s part of the game and you’ve got to be good at it. If you want to be considered a top-class player you’ve got to tick all the boxes.”
He’d also hate to think that opponents might regard him as a weak link in any aspect. “From my point of view when you’re playing against a team and you have that easy ‘10’ channel to target, it’s a luxury because you can keep going there. You know it’s going to launch your game for two or three phases because if the first phase is good, the next phase is good.”
This Ireland team is endeavouring to become the first to retain the title since 1949. And that’s an ambition in its own right, regardless of the World Cup. “I know Warren Gatland has talked about the World Cup, and he didn’t care about the autumn or doesn’t care about the Six Nations. I think they over-trained during November on purpose. The Welsh boys were almost tired playing the games because he wants them to be fresh for the World Cup and he wants to see what they were like fatigued.
“We’re just game-focused. We would like to retain the title. It’s too important a competition to take with that attitude. Joe definitely has that attitude and I think it’s definitely a tough competition to win, never mind retain, and yeah it’s hard to know where we are.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are injured, coming back – and how they come back – is important. We’ve got the provinces coming off a mixed bag but our provincial form never correlates with national form. If it did, we’d have five or six Six Nations titles over the last seven or eight years. It doesn’t go hand-in-hand.”
Then there’s “Second Season Syndrome”. “We’ve already started a second season under Joe,” comes the swift answer, “so we’ve banished those questions. It’s a fair question but I think the answer came against South Africa and Australia.
“Hunger is not going to be the issue. It’s whether we can turn up five weeks in a row. Historically, Irish teams have often needed a loss to have a big victory and big performance, and we spoke about that in November, that we could beat South Africa and Australia, that we don’t need a loss to get us ready for the Six Nations.”
Ireland kick-off against Italy on the opening weekend in Rome, probably the worst time and place to meet Jacques Brunel’s side?
“100 per cent. If you look at our game last year it was 7-7 after 25 or 30 minutes, and we were talking about making our points difference better, and I was saying ‘let’s go for the corner’ but Paulie said: ‘No, let’s go for the posts’. We went 10-7 and then we went 17-7 just before half-time. If we didn’t score one minute before half-time it would have been 10-7 at half-time, at home in Brian O’Driscoll’s last game at the Aviva and we were fired up and they had nothing to play for. They’ve a really good coach. I’ve got a couple of team-mates at Racing who are former Perpignan players who say he is brilliant, because he was really up-to-date, modern. They say he was really good tactically, and a clever guy.”
Sexton has an even better insight into the French, who showed real signs of rejuvenation in November before being mugged by Argentina. “Having played with and against a lot of the guys I can see how good they are,” Sexton admits, although Racing team-mates Brice Dulin and Alexandre Dumoulin have been ruled out. “They have [Wesley] Fofana and [Mathieu] Bastareaud, they have Camille Lopez pulling the strings – and maybe they lacked that calibre of player – and they can leave out [Francois] Trinh-Duc who I consider a great player. They are always going to be strong up front but you add in Camille Lopez and he seems to be the last piece of the jigsaw.”
With England and Wales again a force, and Scotland also showing real shoots of growth under Vern Cotter, Sexton believes this will probably be “the most closely fought” Six Nations he’s played in. And if it’s true that provincial form isn’t necessarily reflected in Ireland’s Six Nations campaigns over the years, then the same is certainly true of the Welsh – if generally in reverse.
Furthermore, they assuredly had a post-Lions hangover last time after being the bulk suppliers to Australia, and as Sexton admits: “It gave a lot of (other) teams motivation when you’re playing against 11 of the Lions, and you’ve probably got 11 guys who feel they should have been more closely looked at.”
Indeed, both Ireland (26-3) and England (28-19) beat them. “We had massive motivation playing against Wales last year, so likewise they’re going to have huge motivation for what we did to them last year.”
England, Sexton points out, have won four games out of five and yet finished second for the last three years in a row. “We won four out of five once in the last three years and we won a Championship, which is pretty unlucky for them.”
Whereas the Six Nations comes by every year, the World Cup comes by every four years. Sexton missed out on 2007, and lost his place prior to the quarter-final exit against Wales in 2011.
“I remember being included in an Irish squad when I was 21 and that was a World Cup year. If I’d played or been involved in the Six Nations that year, you never know. And then when you’re 25 at a World Cup, you’re thinking ‘I’ve got another two of these’, whereas now you’re thinking: ‘this could be my last one’. And it’s amazing that it just comes full circle.”
“The last one did end disappointingly for me personally and from the team point of view. When you hear Brian O’Driscoll say that game [the quarter-final defeat to Wales] was the biggest disappointment of his career, it really hits home how important it’s going to be. But at the same time, I feel it’s the start of next season. We’re going to have a three or four week break and a five or six week pre-season, and then four warm-up games. It’s the end of September almost. For the southern hemisphere it’s the end of this season, for us it’s the start of next season.”
The 2011 World Cup might have panned out differently for him but for some place-kicking issues, and particularly one penalty off the post which resulted in O’Gara taking over the duties in the 15-6 win over Australia. Sexton has also been portrayed, a la O’Gara, as something of a tortured soul, not least bearing in the mind the additional baggage that comes with being a place-kicker.
“I’m probably just honest about it. Every kicker has them [demons]. Every golfer has them, and they spend all their careers working out how to control them. Maybe I should pretend I’m bulletproof, and I’m a robot. But everyone is the same. It’s just normal thoughts.”
“I feel the big turning point in my career was Pádraig Harrington coming into the Irish squad in December 2008 at Enfield and he spoke about missing the hole and letting people down and this from one of the best golfers in the world, and I thought ‘he has these doubts’. I had just looked at these sportspeople were bulletproof and the thoughts that I had since I was a teenager were not normal. I remember talking to (sports psychologist) Enda McNulty about it and it was a real Eureka moment. ‘This is great. He’s normal. I’m the same as him’. Then meeting (kicking coach) Dave Alred, and being coached by Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt. All these little things can put your career on a different path.”
Sexton would also hate not to be the goal-kicker. “I’ve marked down every kick I’ve taken in every game. I’ve got it in a book at home.” Sometimes he works out his different percentages for club/province and country, and examines how he can get to 90 per cent for them.
“I’ve missed kicks, one here or one there, but I’ve had two periods where I’ve kicked poorly for two or three games – one off the back of an injury, another off probably trying too hard. But these breaks in the season allow you to re-evaluate everything and almost start again.”
Another positive, he reckons, is that he will be fresh until the end of the season.
All in all, Sexton has much to look forward to, both in the short-term with Ireland, over the rest of his last campaign with Racing, and indeed over the rest of his career. After all the upheavals, maybe the best years are still to come.
“When you’re forced to take 12 weeks off, you always fear the worst, but hopefully I can play a part in Leinster having a really successful four or five years. Maybe longer. I’d like to be the next Brad Thorn. That’s how much I love playing.”
“How could you not love being a rugby player as your job. You get well paid. You get to keep fit and go to the gym. Work for me is practising my kicking for two hours. It does have pressures, it does have stresses. Sometimes, when you go into a big game, you think ‘God, this would be so much easier if I was going to the game with a pint in my hand’. But then you’re just going to miss it so much. Some guys will say that’s not the case, that they look forward to getting a real job, and having their weekends back when they finish, but no, I fear the day when it all comes to an end and I hope that it lasts for as long as it can.”
More to do then? Just slightly.