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'It came as a shock because South African rugby is famous for second rows'

26-year-old Jerry Sexton has earned a contract in the Pro14 with the Southern Kings.

LAST MONTH, IT was confirmed that Jerry Sexton had become the first Irish rugby player to sign a professional contract with a South African club.

The imposing lock will join the Southern Kings this summer on a three-year deal, meaning he’ll be playing Guinness Pro14 rugby against the Irish provinces in the coming seasons.

Naturally enough, the visit to the RDS to take on his native Leinster will be getting circled in his calendar as soon as the fixtures for the 2019/20 campaign are released.

JS Source: Southern Kings

26-year-old Sexton has been playing with English Championship side Jersey for the past two seasons and though he has been striving to earn a shot in one of the top-tier professional leagues, he didn’t expect his chance to come in South Africa.

“It came as a bit of a shock, to be honest, because South African rugby is famous for their second rows and producing that kind of player,” says Sexton, the younger brother of Ireland and Leinster out-half Johnny.

The prospect of a move to the Kings, based in the city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, came up just after Christmas when his agent, Niall Woods, got in touch to see if Sexton was receptive to the interest the South African side had expressed.

The lock still had two years left on his Jersey contract but the head coach of the club, Harvey Biljon, always hoped to see his players progress to a higher stage, meaning Sexton had a clause allowing him to depart.

With new owners – the wonderfully named ‘The Greatest Rugby Company in the Whole Wide World’ – at the Kings since March, the hope is that there’s a new era ahead for a club that has won just three of its 42 games since joining the Pro14 in 2017.

“If you look at the last couple of years, they’ve obviously been disappointed with how they’ve done,” says Sexton, who has been watching the Kings closely since that first contact.

“But they’re hoping to build, put a three-year plan in place and really start challenging. You look at what Treviso have done [in reaching the play-offs this season]; if you can aspire to do something like that it would be great.”

Sexton has never been to South Africa before so is looking forward to moving to Port Elizabeth with his partner this summer, having heard good things about the beachfront from his South African team-mates in Jersey.

Sexton Source: Jersey Reds TV

Click here if you cannot view the clip above

A three-year contract provides security, although it was tough for Sexton to decide to leave Jersey – who he captained this season as they finished an impressive fourth in the Championship.

“I ended up playing 53 games in two years here,” says the 6ft 5ins, 118kg Sexton.

“That’s a testament to Jim Molony, our head S&C coach, and Emlyn Lynch, our head physio – they’re both Irish guys.

“Then the coaches let me play 53 games as well. When you’re happy on the pitch, that leads to it off the pitch.

“I met my partner here, it’s such a nice island, it was a big decision to leave. But I’m ambitious and want to try and have the best career I can possibly have. If I didn’t leave, I’d be lying to myself.”

As well as growing into a leadership role, Sexton has improved as a technical second row – calling Jersey’s lineout and working closely with Neil Tunnah, the club’s forwards coach, to better understand the set-piece intricacies he hopes will stand him in good stead as he establishes himself with the Kings.

Sexton’s superb performances this season earned him a place in the 2018/19 Championship Dream Team, voted for by the 12 head coaches in the league and published in The Rugby Paper.

He says it was “very humbling” to be included, with the article praising him as a “keen student of the game who gives the Reds an edge at lineout time.”

Sexton’s journey towards securing a contract with a Pro14 club speaks volumes about his grit.

Having played underage rugby for Leinster and earned Ireland caps at U18 and U20 levels, he was overlooked for an academy spot with his home province. 

Jerry Sexton celebrates a try with Steve Crosbie Sexton [19] after scoring a try for the Ireland U20s in 2013. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/Inpho

It looked as though he would join London Irish’s academy instead but, after that deal collapsed at a late stage, he ended up with French Pro D2 side Auch, helping them to a national U23 title. 

Sexton moved to Mont-de-Marsan in the summer of 2014 but opportunities weren’t forthcoming and he soon linked up with Exeter Chiefs in a 14-week trial basis, going on to earn a contract that kept him there for two seasons.

He made his Premiership debut at the age of 21, then joined London Irish on loan in 2016 and made another five appearances in the top flight. Sexton linked with the Exiles permanently the following season, before his move to Jersey in 2017.

It’s been a roundabout route and Sexton stresses how important it has been to have a good agent working on his behalf in Woods, who runs Navy Blue Sports. 

“I’ve been working with Niall for the last five years and thank God I met him.

“My brother introduced me to Niall and he’s just worked hard for me. I’ve tried to work hard for him and he’s always given me the opportunity to keep on playing by getting me contracts.”

Even still, it has taken Sexton’s determination to stay the course and fight for his place in the professional game.

Like every player and every person, he has had tough times – never more so than when his friend, Conor Hallinan, took his own life at the age of 23 in 2016. 

Having been close since they were eight-year-olds, Hallinan’s death had a big impact on Sexton and it was one of the times where he considered packing in his nomadic rugby life and moving home to Ireland.

“I was thinking about that the other day, there have been pretty hard moments,” says Sexton. “I lost one of my friends a few years ago when I was with London Irish and that had a big impact on me. He went through a mental health battle.

Sexton Sexton during his time with London Irish.

“It was at a time where you don’t know if you’re staying with London Irish or leaving, and I lost him and it was just a tough moment. I always thought to myself that I want to give rugby my best shot.

“There are always going to be hard times, it’s how you come through that and I said I’d come to Jersey and give it my best shot, hoping something would come from that.”

The shock of losing Hallinan underlined to Sexton that everyone, rugby players included, can benefit from understanding that it’s ok not to be ok.

He has great respect for the work his team-mate, Conor Joyce, is doing alongside his brother, Kieran, with Noggin Sport.

“It’s hugely important for people to talk about their feelings, especially men in sport. You can put on such a bravado about being big and tough guys but if someone is feeling vulnerable, it’s important to talk.”

Mature and hungry after his rugby journey so far, Sexton’s life is now all about the excitement of his move to the Kings.

He’ll be back in Dublin next month, as well as visiting relations in Kerry, before the next chapter of his career begins in Port Elizabeth.

“Talking to friends and family, this is the age where I need to go and get it,” says Sexton.

“I have three years over there, I’ll just have turned 29 when this contract finishes. At the end of it, I want to know that I’ve given it my very best.”

__________

Need help? Support is available:

Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)
A list of HSE and HSE-funded services can be found here.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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