IT WASN’T JUST Jonny whom the Sexton family lost to France this season; younger brother Jerry is in l’Hexagone trying to make his way in professional rugby too.
The 20-year-old is at an altogether different point of his career than his elder sibling, but one that has presented him with equally testing challenges. For Jonny’s physically demanding schedule and hiccuping Racing Métro side, Jerry is confronted with the difficulty of bulking up and leaving home at a young age.
Sexton junior has pitched up at Auch in the rugby hotbed of southwest France on a one-year academy contract. Having played for the Ireland U20s last season, an apparently done-deal to join London Irish’s academy fell through during the summer, before the Pro D2 side stepped in to give Sexton an opportunity.
Six months into his own French adventure, the second row admits it has brought unique challenges.
It’s been really good. I’ve really enjoyed it but it’s been difficult at the same time. It’s just a bit different over there, with the weights and everything. Everything is about size in the Pro D2, they just want you to get bigger and bigger.”
Auch have been enduring a poor season so far, with just three wins in 15 games leaving them rock bottom of the Pro D2 at the mid-way point. Sexton’s youth and perceived lack of weight mean he has had no involvement with the senior team on the pitch this season.
However, the former St. Mary’s lock made the substitutes bench for the recent 16-16 league clash with Dax at the 7,000-capacity Stade de Moulias in Auch. While his senior debut didn’t come that day, Sexton appreciated the chance.
“There’s a handful of us from the academy who train with the seniors most of the time. The last two months, I’ve been with the seniors full-time and I was on the bench against Dax. I didn’t get on, which was disappointing, but it was good experience just to sub in front of that many people; the experience of what professional rugby is about.”
For the large part, Sexton’s focus has been on Auch’s Espoirs team, which is under-23 level. In contrast to the senior side, the Espoirs are enjoying a strong season, with five wins from their nine pool games so far.
Sexton is a strong jumping option at the line-out. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan.
The Espoirs leagues split all 30 professional French clubs into three pools of 10 clubs, with Sexton’s Auch side fourth in their group and looking like strong contenders for the play-offs. That situation didn’t appear likely earlier in the season.
“Yeah, we lost our first three games. It was disappointing and I was kind of questioning why I was over there. Out of our last seven games, we’ve won six and we’re now all hoping that we can win the league.”
That Sexton was wondering whether he should stay on in France points to the difficulty he had with settling into life away from home. A key man in his decision to stick it out has been fellow Irish player Rory Kavanagh, also in his first year with the club.
The centre won a Leinster Senior School’s Cup with the Dan Leavy-captained St. Michael’s in 2012, but like Sexton didn’t manage to pick up a deal with his native Leinster after finishing school. That he also agreed to join Auch has been a saving grace for Sexton.
I’m not sure if I’d still be there if it wasn’t for him. He’d be one of my best friends at this stage from living with him all the time. He was really good at French going over, so he’s helped me out a lot. He’s nearly been like a teacher in French for me.”
And has Kavanagh’s linguistic tutelage helped?
“I’m coming along a good bit now, I’m trying really hard. We get lessons twice a week which is really helpful, two hours on a Wednesday and a Friday.”
The first two months were the most difficult for the young Irish duo, with Sexton admitting there have been bouts of homesickness. However, the “amazing” weather and fantastic French cuisine have helped them to adapt off the pitch.
In terms of the all-important rugby, Sexton’s biggest challenge has been, and continues to be, bulking up in an effort to deal with the “crazy” physicality of the Pro D2.
Sexton  celebrates a try for the Ireland U20 side. ©INPHO/Matteo Ciambell.
“They’re trying to put on a bit of size on me at the moment, which I like anyway because I like going to the gym. So that’s a good part of it, but then the contact sessions are what’s really developing me the most; getting used to the physicality of getting hit by these full-grown men.
“It’s crazy. When I went over, I was never expecting what it was going to be like, but the first two months over there, I couldn’t believe the standard. You have ex-internationals running around, like Sébastien Chabal. I couldn’t believe it.”
While the Top 14 continues to grow its international audience thanks to the influx of foreign stars, including Jerry’s older brother, the Pro D2 remains a largely unknown entity. The utter myth of ‘French flair’ is certainly put to bed in the second-tier league, where the true traditional nature of French rugby is on show every weekend.
It’s just big forwards. They kick the ball into the corners, they maul, they scrum. It’s just physicality. That’s French rugby, it’s what they love.”
Sexton’s deal with Auch lasts until the end of the current season, and he is hopeful that they won’t be relegated out of the professional leagues. His intention is to remain with the club if they do stay in the Pro D2, and target a first-team spot over the next two to three years.
If that is not to be the case, contacts in France may well hook him up with another club there, or a switch to the English Championship could be on the cards. Still just 20, Sexton has his foot on the professional ladder and won’t be taking a downwards step any time soon.
Several 100 kilometres away from his brother Jonny, but in the same country, Sexton reveals he still hasn’t taken the train up to Paris to get a tour of the Racing Métro set-up.
“I was supposed to get up to him the week I subbed against Dax. I was meant to go, but I obviously had to stay around. It was disappointing but I should get up to him after the holidays. I should get up to him a couple of times, which would be good.”
Have the brothers discussed the difficulty of adapting to the language, culture and playing style in France? Absolutely, but Jerry says Jonny has it a lot easier.
“He has his wife over with him, so it’s not too bad. He has Ronan O’Gara too; one of his best friends now which is funny.”
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