JONNY SEXTON’S SWITCH to Racing Métro was supposed to be an exciting, invigorating rugby adventure, but there have been times this season when the Ireland out-half has questioned what he is doing in France.
The Parisian club has endured mixed results, leaving them eighth in the Top 14 with just eight games remaining. However, the Jacky Lorenzetti-financed outfit are just a single point off the play-off places and a recent win over Toulouse – followed by a draw away to Perpignan – suggests that the turning point may have been passed.
Despite the dogged trudge and weighty expectation he has dealt with in his first seven months with Racing, Sexton is staying positive.
Yeah, it’s got a bit better, they’ve taken some stuff on board. No, it has [got better], we’ve been improving; although that doesn’t say much! It’s taken more time than I would have – or anyone would have – expected but we had a lot of injuries as well which doesn’t help when you’re missing some of your best players.
“The difference two or three players can make to a team is huge, especially in the backs with Jamie Roberts back, Juan Martín Hernández back, Juan Imhoff back. Just having three extra guys outside and all three of them speak English which is a help. All three are good attacking players which made a difference against Toulouse.”
Much has been made in recent times of how Sexton has struggled to adapt to life off the field in France. A recent interview with the BBC resulted in widespread coverage of the topic elsewhere, with many suggesting that the 28-year-old felt his move had been a mistake.
Sexton is focused on leading Racing Métro up the table in the coming months. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
However, Sexton points out that anyone leaving their home faces the issues he has dealt with and stresses that that coverage wasn’t balanced.
“I didn’t make the decision to feel up and down, that was just how I felt. That was a bit blown out of proportion, a lot of people phoned me about that interview and said, ‘Did you see this?’ and I said, ‘What?’.
“All the headlines could have been that I could be here forever and instead it’s like, you want to go home. I was just honest, I just said were days at the start when I felt like I’d go back and play for St. Mary’s for the year, do you know what I mean?
Whereas there’s other days when you come off the pitch and say, ‘Jeez, that was pretty good and we could build something pretty good here’. Like I said, I could be here forever but that’s just the ups and downs that go with everything I think. There’s no point in thinking about if the opportunity arises, I’ll go home.”
Ronan O’Gara’s influence at the club has aided Sexton through some moments of doubt, while the perception that Racing’s form is improving helps too. Joe Schmidt expressed his concern in November that the Ireland international was suffering the effects of too heavy a workload, but Sexton insists that is not an issue now.
The Dublin man points out that “playing every week isn’t a problem for me,” but highlights that the manner in which Racing trained took time to adapt to. Having come from Leinster, where “you trained a little less and got looked after during the week more,” Racing was a huge shift.
There have been good times for Racing this season too. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
That adaptation process is progressing rapidly now, while Sexton’s playing time decreases too.
“I think they knew at the start of the year that they had played me too much but in fairness it wasn’t always their fault. Even some of the games I was on the bench, twice the starters got injured; Jonathan Wisniewski was injured twice. So it’s not their fault.
“The second and third choice out-halves were injured and Juan Martín Hernández was away with Argentina. Since the All Blacks game – when I was obviously injured and out for a couple of weeks after – I probably haven’t played that much, probably the same as the rest of the boys.
I had a week’s holiday [in Dubai] when they were playing a big Heineken Cup game [against Clermont]. So it’s not been too bad in all honesty. Hopefully it will continue like that.”
Sexton acknowledges that Racing signed him not only for his individual playing abilities, but also for the winning mentality that he brings. Having been part of Leinster’s shift towards becoming one of Europe’s most successful teams helps the Irish out-half to understand that that process takes time.
Back-to-back Six Nations champions Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips and Dan Lydiate will be vital to that change too, with Sexton appreciating the “attitude that they bring to training” and how the Welshmen “expect to win every game”.
Despite having featured in many of Racing’s seven Top 14 defeats and four Heineken Cup losses, Sexton says the mental stress of coping with failure is not getting any easier.
“I thought that defeats wouldn’t affect me as much over there [in France] because defeats were, in a way, quite personal with Leinster. It was strange, you would beat yourself up for a while over bad performances or defeats.
Sexton with Racing coach Laurent Labit. ©INPHO/Presse Sports.
“I thought one of the advantages of going away was that I would very much just concentrate on myself, do all I could do and be happy, but I suppose you get into the environment and it doesn’t work like that. You want the same things. It is just the way you are built.”
“In the Heineken Cup over the last five or six seasons with Leinster I maybe lost five or six games and I have probably lost that many this season for Racing in Europe, so it is worlds apart. But that’s the big challenge in front of everyone at the club, to turn Racing into one of the big clubs in France and in Europe.”
His own personal rugby challenges continue, as life in Paris with wife Laura grows ever more comfortable and habitual. This move to France was never going to be just about helping Racing Métro to trophies, and Sexton is focusing on being in the here and now.
Well I’ve always been, I’ve always tried to do my best and give my best for my club, for my team-mates and for myself. Just at times it has been difficult and that was always going to be the case.
“If we were sitting top of the table and we had won every single game, there would still have been very difficult moments at the start, just settling into a new home and a new place; you’re sitting in an empty apartment for the first week with nothing there.
“You know, there are challenges in every aspect.”
Fly Off! Aer Lingus ambassador Johnny Sexton kicked off a special offer of ‘up to 20% off’ fares on selected European routes booked from today to Sunday 16th February for travel from 1st May to 30th June. For more information visit www.aerlingus.com.