Smooth move from understudy to lead role

JONATHAN SEXTON INTERVIEW: JOHN O’SULLIVAN talks to the Leinster and Ireland outhalf in the aftermath of the seismic impact …

JONATHAN SEXTON INTERVIEW: JOHN O'SULLIVANtalks to the Leinster and Ireland outhalf in the aftermath of the seismic impact he made during the November Test series

JONATHAN SEXTON doesn’t like playing darts, the current distraction of choice when the Ireland rugby squad is in camp. He’s nothing against the game per se but he doesn’t like to consider himself vulnerable in a competitive environment. It’s embedded in the genes rather than a conscious process and represents a mindset that motivates him to be the best, irrespective of milieu.

His-self deprecating laughter accompanies a confession that he wants to win no matter whether it’s scrabble, cards or sundry applications on the iPhone; regardless of whether it pits him against team-mates, family or even his girlfriend. It’s why he finds the darts frustrating. “We played when we were in camp in Limerick, a game called Killer. Basically you throw a dart with your non-throwing hand and whatever number you get you then have to hit it three times to become a killer. Every player has a set number of lives and once you’re a killer you try and knock off their lives. I’m not the best and would get picked on remorselessly, which would kill me, literally,” he smiles.

There is a suggestion in his tone he might be getting a dartboard for Christmas. The parable of the arrows is a conduit to better understanding the 24-year-old and the seismic impact he has made during the November Test series. He has a strikingly mature outlook that focuses on solutions rather than problems.

He didn’t make the Ireland match 22 against Australia, his debut against Fiji the following week and then retain his spot for South Africa from piggybacking on others’ misfortune. He earned those opportunities by dint of form. Talent is one ingredient for a successful sportsperson but Sexton lent substance to the wish list of qualities like passion, aptitude, work ethic and attitude.

There is a tendency to trace the genesis of his current status to the day he climbed off the bench and played such a pivotal role in Leinster’s Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Munster at Croke Park last season. He tells a different tale.

“I was very low, depressed probably, around Christmas time last year. I wasn’t in the Leinster team and was wondering would I be still there at the end of the season. This is a team I always wanted to play for; my home team and one that means so much to me. I basically decided to do everything possible to make it. I knew it was going to be tough. It’s funny, I went to see Cheiks (Michael Cheika) to tell him there were aspects of my game I needed to work on and one was place-kicking.

“Prior to that in the matches in which I played, Felipe (Contepomi) was usually inside centre and so he took the place-kicks. You have to kick regularly to give yourself the best chance of being consistently accurate. In my underage days and in (Leinster) A matches, times when I was kicking regularly, I would have been in the high 80s in terms of percentages. Richie Murphy’s arrival at Leinster helped me enormously. He works with me every day and I have also had the benefit of time spent with Dave Alred (Sexton is contracted to Adidas) and with Ireland, Mark Tainton.

“But the catalyst in terms of my situation came when Deccie (Declan Kidney) gave me a chance in the A team just after Christmas. I’ve sort of gone on from there, been happy with my form since so that was probably a big break for me because it was that performance that probably got me back in the Leinster team.”

By the time the November internationals arrived, Sexton had a European medal tucked in his back pocket and was Leinster’s first-choice outhalf. He’d gone from understudy to lead. He’s never been afraid to voice his opinion but it now carried more substance, based on deeds. He explained:

“There are no allowances made as every player is expected to shoulder a responsibility. I wanted that role, wanted to be a leader but understood the importance of backing it up. That’s what you have to do; that’s what is expected of you. We have so many players who do that.”

When the Ireland team to play Australia was announced Sexton was both “happy and disappointed”, wrestling with the contrasting emotions as he sat in the team room. “I knew I was lucky to be in the 22 when you consider that someone like Darce (Gordon D’Arcy) didn’t make it. I had achieved one of my goals set at the start of the season but I don’t think anyone ever wants to be a sub.

“Rugby was put in perspective by the death of Peter (St Mary’s College coach) and Gill Smyth’s baby son. You realise that you really have little to be worried about when you look at what others have to endure. I wasn’t nervous beforehand and was able to soak up the atmosphere in Croke Park, spotting family and friends and enjoying the anthems.

“I watched what Rog (Ronan O’Gara) was doing and thought about what I might have done in similar circumstances. You’re always trying to learn; watching, soaking up information. You also evaluate how the game is unfolding, where the gaps are or what way the opposition is attacking and defending in case you’re called on.”

That scenario almost materialised when Paddy Wallace picked up a blood injury. Sexton laughs: “I was told I’d be going on. You have never seen someone get a tracksuit off quicker. I was on the sideline, stripped, gum-shield in and ready to go when I got the shepherd’s crook and told Paddy wouldn’t be coming off. I remember making my way back up to the stand and catching Johnny O’Hagan’s eye (Leinster bagman) and he was pointing and laughing, which nearly killed me. The last time I had played inside centre was for the Irish Schools but I wouldn’t have cared where they put me: I just wanted to play.

“At no stage did I think I was guaranteed to play against Fiji: you know you are in the mix and you hope. My family were delighted and everyone was very supportive. I couldn’t get to sleep the night before and went to the doc for a sleeping tablet. When I wake up, I have to get up; I can’t lie there. I forced down some breakfast and went back to the room. I’m not a coffee or a go-for-a-walk person. Fortunately there was some rugby and soccer to while away the afternoon.

“I’d normally room with Luke (Fitzgerald) but in his absence it was Darce, who is easily the messiest person I have ever come across. His side of the room looked like it had been ransacked,” he laughs. “Lashing rain and a howling wind isn’t how you picture your first cap but I was fortunate that this was my home ground. I knew the wind and there was a cracking atmosphere, which was comforting. It was a special day.”

Working with sports psychologist Enda McNulty had taught Sexton to separate place-kicking from general play and the folly of dwelling on mistakes. He was happy to kick seven from seven; an astonishing achievement in the wind but it was the other component parts of his duties as an outhalf that pleased him as much. The man-of-the-match accolade was incidental.

He didn’t want to read the newspapers because he thought it would accentuate the disappointment of not starting against South Africa. There would be plenty of praise for his Fiji performance but each sentence would contain the word . . . “but”.

He learned of his inclusion for the Springbok game from Ronan O’Gara who generously came to his erstwhile rival to give him a “heads up” prior to the team announcement. “Ronan told me, explained that Deccie had told him (O’Gara) that he would not be starting. He told me there was no point in keeping it secret. He was really professional and helpful in the build-up to the game and if and when the circumstances change I would hope to be the same. When playing for Ireland it’s important to put your rivalries aside. I think Paulie (O’Connell) summed it up best when saying that when the provinces play it’s like competing with your brother. The last person in the world you’d want to lose to is your brother.

“That rivalry is put aside when come together for Ireland. There is a tremendous spirit and camaraderie. I rang my dad (Gerry) and his reaction was ‘oh, Jesus Christ, you’re not starting, are you?’ He gets more nervous than me. I certainly didn’t expect it, especially when you consider all that Rog has done for Ireland in the big matches. Declan had faith in me and I had to repay that.”

Sexton got a text from Felipe Contepomi on the eve of the game. His one-time mentor at Leinster reminded him that the most important thing was to trust his instincts and to do the right thing for the team. The team was everything and that individual aspirations take second place.

Contepomi stressed that Sexton was good enough not to retreat into a shell: game situations had to be confronted on merit rather than mitigated by the fear of making an individual error. The young Irishman appreciated the support. It wasn’t the only text: Ollie Campbell, Paul Dean and Mick Quinn also made contact.

Five penalties from seven attempts – contributing all Ireland’s points in a 15-10 victory – is the shorthand version of his day facing the Springboks. “Kicking at the Hill and Canal End of Croke Park is like kicking in two different stadiums. Down at the Hill you’d think that the wind is left to right but it whips and swirls and ends up moving the ball in the other direction.

“Dublin footballer Bernard Brogan is a good friend of mine and he gave me advice, which was really helpful. You’re actually oblivious to everything but your routine. It was freezing and the ball wasn’t flying as far but you have to stay true to your technique.

“It was only afterwards when looking back that having kicked four from four – at that point he was a blemish free 11 from 11 in Test rugby – I saw my shoulder dip on the fifth attempt. I need to stay tall through impact. I kicked the next one and then probably tried to thump the long-range one a little bit hard.”

Two broken bones in his hand took a little of the gloss off a special occasion for the young outhalf. He’ll have the damage rescanned in two weeks but in all probability will miss both of Leinster’s Heineken Cup matches against the Scarlets. His daily place-kicking regimen won’t be affected, while the injury also facilitated some last-minute cramming for an exam earlier in the week – he is in final year Commerce in UCD. “I’m trying to take the positives out of the injury but if I’m honest I’d kill to be playing. Looking back over the last few weeks I’m proud of my contribution but not satisfied because that would suggest that there weren’t things I could have done better. There were plenty.”

Typically forthright and honest it’s an attitude of one who has come so far and why a bright future stretches out in front of him.