Jonathan Sexton up and racing after Metro debut

‘It’s hard to know what to expect when you do take such a plunge, but I am determined to succeed at it’


The sun blazed, the band played and in the breezy coastal port town of La Rochelle a rusty Johnny Sexton and an even rustier Racing Metro kicked off their much anticipated Top 14 campaign with a performance which mirrored that of the Irish outhalf – initially impressive before becoming a tad undistinguished if ultimately satisfying.

One wonders about the longer-term effects of Sexton beginning his most demanding season earlier than ever before merely eight weeks after guiding the Lions to a Test-series win in Australia, and with a reduced pre-season, all the more so as the highly driven individual has to be protected from himself.

Racing’s highly regarded new coaches, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, who guided Castres to the Top 14 title last season, had admitted that this game had probably come too soon for Sexton but, also typical of the man, he had insisted on playing within three weeks of his arrival.

Never before has there been such a high profile Irish rugby émigré but with that comes high expectations. For a debutant in a new league with a new language, much of his performance was first-rate. He marshalled the game well, his kicking out of hand was sumptuous and created Racing’s sole try, and he was up for the physical fray as usual, but in the cold statistics of place-kicking, which he was effectively doing for the first time since May, he missed three out of six.

Greeted by holidaymakers
This didn’t prevent the home fans, more audibly enthusiastic of this new arrival than anyone else, voting him Man of the Match – much to the chagrin of the pockets of Brive holidaymakers. Sexton admitted to cutting a sheepish figure when disembarking from the Racing team bus beforehand when greeted by Irish holidaymakers serenading him with a Leinster ditty, and he cut a similar figure when accepting his accolade post-match.

“I was obviously very nervous before the game,” he admitted. “It’s just in a different environment and trying to do things in a different language is difficult. But in many ways I am delighted just to get the win and get off to some kind of start. We have plenty to work on now going forward.”

“I struck the ball well and I struck it well off the ground in the first half. I took one from 50 and the wind got it and took the next one and it didn’t get it. Sometimes that can happen in difficult conditions and I probably got a little bit quick on the last one after a bang to the head. I was a bit disappointed with that after missing a couple but I have plenty to work on now going forward and I was happy with everything else other than misjudging the wind a couple of times.”

Betraying an understandable hint of insecurity in his new surrounds, Sexton admitted: “It’s hard to know what to expect when you do take such a plunge, but I am determined to succeed at it. At times it’s hard work. You have to put in the extra hours, I suppose, try and learn the language. But it is different, everything is different.”

Having the familiar face of Ronan O’Gara to greet him every day and bounce things off has made coming into training easier. “He is a great go-between between me and the coaches because he’s part of the coaching staff. And his experience will be invaluable. Even after today in that breeze he said ‘in that breeze I’ve had a 100 of those games where you’re just hitting them and almost hoping at times’. That’s great, to have him there too.”

Sexton’s signing, along with 14 other newcomers and 19 departures, is Racing’s most striking statement of intent and the decision of their benefactor Jacky Lorenzetti to make this fixture an opening day holiday home was largely vindicated, as the 7,826 who soaked up the Saturday evening sun in the 12,000-capacity Stade Marcel-Deflandre assuredly would have topped the attendance had they played the game in Paris. The brass band trumpeted an almost continuous beat which the Racing fans clapped along to rhythmically. The infuriatingly if typically loud Racing employee on the PA system whipped up the crowd beforehand, which was almost exclusively supporting Racing and comprising of well-heeled Parisians happily waving the thousands of sky blue and white flags which had been handed out beforehand. At the height of the French tourist season, La Rochelle has been crammed on this bank holiday weekend (making travelling by road a nightmare), even if most visitors to this picturesque town were oblivious to the onset of another rugby season, and given the weather you couldn’t blame them.

That said, there were a few Irish holidaymakers amongst them, and one father and daughter combination wore replica Irish jerseys, while another wore Leinster blue. They assuredly stood out from the crowd. Yet, when the teams were announced beforehand, there was also little doubt that the biggest cheer was reserved for the debutant Racing outhalf.

Racing were what you’d expect of a largely, if expensively, re-assembled new team kicking off a new season in mid-August. There were plenty of positive intensions, a willingness to offload close in amongst the forwards, and plenty of width, good lines and ambition in the backline, but the inevitable quotient of balls not going to hand or being spilled. It didn’t help that Brive committed more numbers and intensity to the breakdown and their set-piece, and particularly their scrum, again struggled. A tad ominously, they had also conceded two scrum penalty tries in their first of just two warm-up games in Toulon; where they return next Friday.

Jamie Roberts is having a delayed start to the season due the hamstring strain which ruled him out of the first two Lions Tests in Australia, whereas Dan Lydiate played the full 80, if making relatively negligible impact. But along with Sexton’s kicking, their livewire French scrumhalf, Maxime Machenaud did as much as anyone to keep Racing on the front foot with his sniping.

Sexton moved his first couple of touches in the Top 14 on and back inside off his left hand, and extracted huge height and distance with his first long, wind-assisted diagonal punt. Spiralled beautifully, there was a strong hint of influence from his new kicking/skills coach. His second, struck similarly, actually drew an audible hum from the spectators. Perfectly placed inside the touchline, this time Gaetan Germain couldn’t cope, and Sexton’s punt had taken Racing from just outside their own line to just outside the Brive 22, and with the throw in as well.

Spotted space
With Brive showing a preference for pushing up hard on the outside, a couple of phases later, Sexton spotted space wide out on his opponents’ left flank with what has become something of a pinpoint crosskick. Left winger Virimi Vakatawa was in sync for the pre-prepared play and although the high bounce off a hard August turf eluded the left-winger, fullback Benjamin Lapeyre followed to gather and round the posts. Sexton’s first points in the Top 14 from under the posts would have felt all the better for that, all the more so given the frustration of not being the Lions’ goalkicker.

That was cancelled out by a try within minutes for the Brive winger Bakaniceva, before Sexton tapped over another penalty only to then miss from about 48 metres and see another effort sail directly over the right hand post. Despite rediscovering his range confidently after the resumption he skewed a straightish 40 metre penalty wide. This was compounded by Germain making it a one-score game again from eight metres inside his own half, whereupon Sexton was withdrawn and his replacement, Jonathan Wisniewski, steered Racing home with a couple of penalties as a poor game degenerated into a sequence of scrum infringements before Laurent Ferrerres’ snap drop goal earned Brive a deserved bonus point.

Wisniewski is beginning his seventh season with Racing, where his status as a points’ machine is underlined by accumulating 918 points in 101 games with them before Saturday; all of which adds to the pressure on Sexton.

Plenty for O’Gara (who believes the trek to Toulon may be no bad thing in concentrating minds) to work on as well then, after his Top 14 debut as a skills/kicking coach. “As I said to him afterwards ‘Johnny, I’ve had 20 games like that, so it’s important that you make sure for the next four weeks you pick up that it goes six out of eight, five out of six, four out of six, five out of six, but we can’t be having three out of six or two out of seven.’ That’s what’s required when you want to be the best and Johnny wants to be the best, I’ve been through it and learned from it all, so it’s important that you learn from it.”

“There’s nothing technical there. I just think it was tricky. He said to me before the game that he was nervous and I suppose that’s a measure of how humble the fella is because he’s here and he’s taking it very seriously, and he was uptight during the day and I think he’ll take a few weeks to find his feet. Plus he’s had so much in the last six months I’ve been nearly trying to get him away from the pitch but his work ethic is such that he won’t. So that’s going to be a challenge,” he concluded.

New territory for them both.