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Sexton takes on home province Leinster for first time in B&I semi-final

The 25-year-old second row is a key player for the Jersey Reds.

IT’S A SATURDAY of semi-finals for the Sextons.

As Johnny and Leinster kick off against the Scarlets in the Champions Cup at 3.30pm in Dublin today, his 25-year-old brother Jerry will already be 30 minutes into a British and Irish Cup semi-final for Jersey Reds against Leinster ‘A’.

The youngest Sexton brother has enjoyed a fine first season with the Championship club since joining from London Irish last summer, racking up 25 appearances in the second row as he has become a key player under head coach Harvey Biljon.

Sexton Sexton is having an excellent season for Jersey.

Playing against his home province at Jersey’s home grounds, St. Peter, will be an emotional occasion for Sexton.

He came through St. Mary’s College and represented Leinster’s underage teams before earning Ireland U18 and U20 caps, but was not handed an academy contract with the province.

His route in the professional game since is a story of determination to achieve as much as he possibly can and today will be another proud milestone.

“Obviously, you always look up to a team like Leinster or even the squad, to be in the academy,” said Sexton.

“A senior contract there is obviously, being from Leinster, what you aspire to and when it didn’t happen for me, it was a bit disappointing, but you move on and I’m looking forward to this game. It’s the first time I’ll ever have faced them so I’m looking to make a good account of myself.”

There will be plenty of familiar faces for Sexton to battle with as Jersey look to reach the final for the second season in a row – having been beaten by Munster for the 2016/17 title.

“Guys like Ed and Bryan Byrne, I grew up playing with them in the underage system and they’ve done really well for the senior team this year. When they played against Munster in the B&I quarter-finals, those two were very good.

“They have two senior locks in Mick Kearney and Ian Nagle, so you see those players and between all of them they probably have way more than 100 senior caps. They have huge experience so it’s going to be a big challenge.”

As a central part of this Jersey team, Sexton will be getting plenty of attention from Leinster too.

The 118kg lock runs the English outfit’s lineout, provides major work rate and has even been chipping in with tries, scoring four in the Championship this season.

“I think I’ve just been lucky the last couple of weeks,” says Sexton with a laugh. “I’ve fallen over the tryline a couple of times, but it’s always good to get your name out there.”

Try Sexton scores against Yorkshire Carnegie in the Championship. Source: England Rugby TV

Sexton calls this “one of the happiest seasons I’ve had in my career” and explains that he has enjoyed having the opportunity to play almost every weekend.

Jersey warmed up for the clash with Leinster ‘A’ by beating Nottingham 50-29 last weekend, leaving them fifth in the Championship with one more round to go – an impressive feat considering that they turned over around 20 players in the off-season.

The club generally gets between 2,000 and 4,000 people at their games in St. Peter, which is not bad considering that the population of the island is around 100,000.

Sexton was “happily surprised” at how well run the club is despite its relative lack of size and financial power compared to other Championship sides, with meals put on for the players daily and the gym facilities in good shape too.

Two ex-Ulster players, centre Mark Best and former Ireland U20s back row Conor Joyce, have helped provide Sexton with a taste of home and the three Irishmen have all made an impact on the pitch.

“I live with the two of them, just by chance we were all put in together,” says Sexton. “The house is called ‘The Irish Headquarters,’ it’s a big farmhouse up in the middle of nowhere, so it’s actually quite nice.”

Still young for a second row, Sexton has already had plenty of different experiences in his professional career.

Having learned that Leinster wouldn’t be taking him on and after an academy contract with London Irish collapsed at the last minute, Sexton ended up with French Pro D2 side Auch along with fellow Irishman and friend, Rory Kavanagh, for the 2013/14 season.

The lock “loved every minute” there and helped Auch’s espoirs [U23] side to a national title. The experience of getting out of his comfort zone helped Sexton to grow up quickly.

“In Dublin, you live… not in a bubble, but it’s a nice place to be, where you have everything there. My Mum would obviously have looked after us very well, but then you leave and have to learn to fend for yourself.

Roru O'Loughlin tackles Jerry Sexton Sexton in action for St. Mary's College in 2011. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“You learn pretty quickly or otherwise you probably don’t have the best dinners in front of you! I feel I’ve been lucky, to be honest; moving away helped me a lot.”

Having bulked up considerably in that season with Auch, Sexton moved to Mont-de-Marsan, who had Irish lock Mark Flanagan on their books, in the summer of 2014 but things didn’t work out as promised by the club.

Sexton had been told he would be a member of the senior squad but when he arrived it looked as though they had him earmarked for the espoirs side.

“I wanted to get a taste of senior rugby, so I asked my agent Niall Woods, who has been very good to me, would there be an opportunity somewhere else.”

Woods, who runs Navy Blue Sports, used his network and came back to Sexton with a 14-week trial at English Premiership side Exeter. “We both felt it was the best thing to do,” says Sexton and he left Mont-de-Marsan soon after joining and without playing for them.

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“I was thinking that ‘this opportunity might only come around once’,” says Sexton of his mindset upon arriving at Exeter, and before they extended his contract for a further season and a half.

“I went in, learned my stuff, tried to fit in. Rob Baxter said that to me – that I fitted in seamlessly and it was a joy to have me around, I was never causing problems.”

Sexton featured for Exeter’s A team and for their Anglo-Welsh Cup side initially, before earning a Premiership debut at the age of 21, when he played 35 minutes off the bench against Gloucester in January of 2015.

Head coach Baxter made a particularly strong impression on Sexton during his time at Exeter.

“The amount of detail he goes into as a head coach is unbelievable. It’s amazing how much work he puts in,” says Sexton, recalling how Baxter would code Exeter’s games himself on the bus on the way back from away games – despite having two analysts at the club who also did the same job.

Leo Cullen and Rob Baxter Exeter's Rob Baxter, right, impressed Sexton. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There weren’t further opportunities for Sexton in Exeter’s senior team the following season, however, and when London Irish were looking to take a lock on loan in February 2016, Sexton made the move and played five more times in the Premiership.

London Irish were relegated but Sexton had made a strong enough impression to earn a permanent contract with the club and he played for them 20 times in the Championship and B&I Cup last season before his move to Jersey.

Learning from forwards coaches Rob Hunter at Exeter and George Skivington at London Irish was important for Sexton’s development as a lineout caller, with Jersey getting the benefits of that now.

“I like to think that I’ve brought a lot to Jersey in terms of running the lineout, setting the calling menus up, setting our programme of how we call things – I’ve brought it all with me,” says Sexton. “That’s come from Exeter and London Irish mixed together.

The lineout is also often an outlet for Sexton’s more demanding side – evidently a family trait.

“The boys would tell me I’m quite angry with it if it doesn’t go the way I’d have liked it to go! The hookers probably get the brunt of my frustrations if the ball is not right, or too high or too low. I tend to get a bit angry and I could probably be better with my words!”

Sexton has welcomed the return of summery weather in Jersey this week after a tough winter, and he says “it’s like you’re in Spain or Portugal in the summer here – the beaches are lovely, there are bars and restaurants.”

He has been coaching local club side Royals RFC recently too and this appears to be another Sexton streak.

Johnny has indicated that he would like to explore the possibility of coaching when he retires from playing, while the eldest of the three brothers, Mark, coached St. Mary’s College’s Junior Cup team to the schools final for the first time in 21 years in March.

Jerry Sexton Sexton's Ireland U20 headshot for the 2013 campaign. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their father, John, was a rugby coach in his time and his sons’ status as rugby nerds is well founded.

“I think it’s just that interest in the game,” says Jerry. “If you see any of us, every weekend we would always be watching rugby. I think watching rugby helps you learn so much and all three of us watch a lot of rugby.

“I’d honestly watch anything. Sometimes if we have a game on Sunday and Saturday is a chill out day, I could end up watching four games of rugby, which probably isn’t the coolest thing!

“I’d love to get into coaching in the future if there’s an opportunity.”

For now, Sexton is determined to make the most of his playing career. When he was younger, the second row admits he allowed himself to think too far ahead, getting caught up with where he might be in years to come, which “made me get up and down a lot, emotionally.”

Jersey’s strength and conditioning coach, Jim Molony, who previously worked with Munster and Connacht, has been a good influence on Sexton this season, helping him to bring his focus consistently to improving each week.

Sexton has certainly gone about doing the hard work so far in his career.

The disappointment of missing out at Leinster. A very new experience in Auch. The brief stint at Mont-de-Marsan. To Exeter, initially on trial. On to London Irish, initially on loan. Now in Jersey, where he has another season to look forward to.

“I think when it didn’t happen for me at home, I just thought I could always come back and go to university or I could always do something else,” says Sexton of what is driving him. “With rugby, if I wanted to play, this is the only time I could ever do it.

“For the next five or ten years, this is my chance. I can never go back and play rugby, so I thought I might as well give it my all and have no regrets, instead of being 35 and sitting in an office thinking, ‘I should have gone to Jersey’ or ‘I should have gone to Exeter’. Because that would be a regret.

“Hopefully, when I do finish I will know I gave everything I had. I can always go back and do other things, but I can never get this back.”

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