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'People see this Roy Keane side to him but he's probably the kindest guy in a dressing room'

Johnny Sexton’s story is a quintessential Irish one where perseverance eventually brought success to a man who will win his 100th Ireland cap today.

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THE KICK: PART ONE

FOR A MOMENT, he wasn’t the world player of the year, the marketing exec’s dream, the highest paid pro in Ireland. No, he was just a Jackeen who’d gone down with cramp, the rain pissing into his face.

He was fairly knackered, his leg delivering a muted protest. Not that you’d have noticed, not when a series of little dramas were unfolding 10 yards away from him. Phases, rugby folk, call it. They deserved a grander title than that.

The clock said 80 minutes and 50 seconds; the scoreboard said France 13-12 Ireland. What did Johnny Sexton say to himself then, on that dank February afternoon in 2018? Seconds earlier he was orchestrating this improbable charge, delivering two perfectly placed kicks, eight slickly executed passes and one clear-out in a move that started inside Ireland’s 22.

Now he was struggling, forced to self-medicate.

Another man would have used the pity card; a prima-donna would have listed excuses in his head; an egotist would have waved his hands to his physio. Instead, Johnny Sexton did his own thing, stretching out his leg, calmly placing his two hands on the sole of his boot, jerking it backwards, curing the ailment.

Now the clock was at 81.35, Sexton back on his feet, offering himself up for an 11th involvement in a move that would not only define Ireland’s season but also his career.

We all know what happened when time ticked on to 82.37, 41 phases in, 45 metres out. Even when surrounded by his teammates, he was separate from them, dropping into the pocket, eyes fixed on the ball, focusing on the task. He had to wait until the last kick of the game to win it. 

But if there was one thing Johnny Sexton was an expert on, it was waiting.

johnny-sexton-kicks-the-winning-the-drop-goal Source: James Crombie/INPHO

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HE WAS LEINSTER’S fourth choice when yer man walked into the room, a few of the lads scoffing in the corner. But as the man kept talking, he became increasingly aware of this ‘gangly, studious fella’ taking in every word.

Speakers instinctively know their audience. Just as comedians draw energy from a crowd’s laughter, sports psychologists find solace from the silence of a dressing room. Enda McNulty was a young man, then, 16 years away from working with Barcelona. Yet here he was in St Mary’s Rugby Club, outlining his images in short, precise sentences.

“I’d no idea who Johnny Sexton was,” McNulty says. He wanted to find out. Training followed McNulty’s talk. It was winter and the wind cut right into his face. Yet he stayed. Steve Hennessy, the St Mary’s coach, ran a good session but when it was over, they all went in, all except the gangly, studious one.

“One by one the lights went out,” McNulty says. “There was only one floodlight left on in the place and only one person left on the pitch, practicing his kicks, time after time after time.”

He had little choice. Way back then, in 2005, Johnny Sexton wasn’t a Lion, an international centurion, a Grand Slam winner, a four-time Heineken Cup champ. Consistency had yet to become his friend. If he was going to make it, he needed help.

jonathan-sexton A young Sexton learned his trade at Mary's. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

DAVE ALRED WAS the man to call. Alred watches the Number 10s kick. Then he spends his days teaching them how to kick even better. He studies their body shape and educates them about transferring weight from one part of the body to the next. “A lot of players think the leg is everything but no the leg is the last piece in the jigsaw,” Alred says.

Initially, Sexton didn’t get that. He didn’t truly understand the physics of kicking, the things that caused the ball to move through the air in a particular way.

He was eager to find out, though. He and Alred started working together in late 2008. “You have to remember it wasn’t always plain sailing for Johnny,” says Bernard Jackman, a friend and former Leinster team mate. Felipe Contepomi was Leinster’s number one, Isa Nacewa often the preferred back-up. The man about to win his 100th Ireland cap was not even close to getting his first.

Alred, however, was intrigued. His own legacy had already been secured after an earlier pupil had progressed from teenage protégé to World Cup winner. The young Sexton reminded Alred of Jonny Wilkinson. “They are physically very different but mentally, they’re incredibly similar. Johnny (Sexton), Jonny (Wilkinson), James O’Connor, Beauden Barrett, they’re students. Each day, they want to get better. I’ve worked with Johnny, what, 14 years now. He’s as hungry as ever. Even at this stage of his career, he is constantly figuring out how to improve.”

rugby-union-rbs-6-nations-championship-2011-england-v-scotland-twickenham Dave Alred mentored Jonny Wilkinson. Source: EMPICS Sport

Theirs is now a personal friendship, not just a working relationship, so much so that when Conor Murray glanced three times to his left on that February afternoon in 2018, Alred remembers getting out of his favourite armchair at his Bristol home and standing in front of his television, muttering away to himself. “Posture, Johnny, get your posture right.”

There was a time when Sexton struggled with that kind of thing. He had a tendency to ‘collapse’ when he struck the ball. Alred and he worked on getting his non-kicking foot in a more favourable position to allow the kicking foot connect with greater purity. Against France, with the Grand Slam dream on the line, Alred noted how Sexton went for power while ‘staying tall’, thereby maintaining control and accuracy.

“He forced it a little bit which was understandable given the range that he was going from but his upper body control was really good which is something a lot of players tend to abandon when placed in pressure situations like that.”

But Sexton isn’t like a lot of other players. Instead, as of today, he will join an elite club of Irish centurions. “What Johnny has is application, and desire, and humility, and an open-mindedness to learn the little details,” says Alred. “Those little things can make a massive difference.”

When the clock stopped dead on 82 minutes and 37 seconds, we saw it for ourselves.

johnny-sexton-celebrates-kicking-the-winning-drop-goal He will always have Paris. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE KICK: PART TWO

LONG BEFORE PARIS, long before 2018, long before his 100th cap, he was a nobody hoping to be a somebody.

Everyone can relate to that kind of story. If Brian O’Driscoll was a teenage prodigy, Sexton was a grafter, talented but still a late bloomer, rugby’s Leonard Cohen. He was 24 when he made his Ireland debut in 2009. Earlier that year he was lining out with his club, St Mary’s, against Old Belvedere in the All-Ireland League.

His is an Irish kind of tale. Try and make the best of yourself. Fight for your dreams. Don’t give up. Given the ruggedness of his play and his character, it seems entirely fitting that his breakthrough year, 2009, came smack bang at the start of the recession. The country was falling apart, another generation forced to emigrate, the IMF getting the flight back in after our children got the plane out.

Yet the country fought its way through the crisis. That’s why this sportsman’s story resonates with so many, okay not with Munster fans, many of whom can’t stand him, but certainly with those who lost their jobs or lost their way.

“He had a really tricky time up until 2009,” says Jackman. “He certainly wasn’t sure of his future.”

But on a sunny April afternoon, that all changed. Leinster were playing Munster in a European Cup semi-final and 83,000 people were there to see it, there to see Felipe Contepomi go off injured and Sexton come on as a replacement. He was 23. His first job was to kick a tricky penalty. “Like it was the biggest attendance for a club fixture at that time – the biggest game most people on the pitch, including me, had ever played,” says Jackman. “That was the moment he arrived. In hindsight we should have known he’d do it.”

jonathan-sexton-celebrates-after-the-game The 2009 game that launched his career. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Darragh Fanning had no doubts. He first met Sexton in primary school, stayed close all the way through secondary, shared a dressing room with him at St Mary’s, shared pints with him on nights out, and later in a Rocky-type story, shared a dressing room with him at Leinster.

“The young Johnny was the exact same as the 36-year-old Johnny,” says Fanning. “He was always demanding high, high standards, always knowing what he wanted; always wanting to win. He didn’t care who you were. Older lads at the club, like Johnny McWeeney, the club captain, a Leinster player, would get it (verbally). Johnny was always very sure of himself.”

Fanning wasn’t alone noticing that trait. At Leinster, Brian O’Driscoll had repeatedly stood up in the dressing room and told his team mates that unless they started to call him out on mistakes then they would never progress from contenders to champions. Everyone listened and nodded their heads. But nothing changed.

Then one day this kid from the academy was asked to train with the first team. O’Driscoll threw the kid a sloppy pass. The kid screamed at him. “There was silence,” Jackman says. “It was a case of, ‘did that just happen?’ Next thing, Brian says, ‘yeah, you’re right. My bad’.”

That’s when Jackman knew Jonathan Sexton would become Johnny Sexton, the face corporate brands would pay big money for, the player Michael Cheika turned to when he needed a replacement out-half in a European semi-final, the kid who’d steer Leinster to a win over Munster, replacing their rivals as Ireland’s No1 province.

His Ireland debut came that November in the RDS ….. he came of age six months previously.

jonathan-sexton Sexton on his Ireland debut against Fiji. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

PART THREE: MR BRIGHTSIDE

TELL THE TRUTH, you don’t really like him. If you’re Ulster, Munster or Connacht – especially if you’re Munster – he gets on your wick. You remember his scream into Ronan O’Gara’s face in 2009 or the follow up snarl at Joey Carbery in 2018. And you’ve made up your mind. He’s not your kind.

Others will defend him. They’ll differentiate between the competitor and the person and will edit that old saying that all’s fair in love, war (and rugby).

But then last year there was another reaction, this time involving a colleague.

That was a very different postcard home from Paris. The stands were empty; Sexton substituted 10 minutes from the end, Ross Byrne coming on in his place. Mother Theresa has more enemies than Ross Byrne. If Simon Cowell started a new talent show, one where the audience and judges were tasked with finding the perfect son-in-law, Ross Byrne would win.

johnny-sexton-leaves-the-field-dejected Sexton leaves the field in Paris, 2020. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Byrne comes on for Sexton in Paris. The television director sitting in his production van doesn’t care about the fella coming on, instructing his camera people to focus solely on the player going off. Images of Johnny Sexton shaking his head in disgust are beamed across the world. This is the captain of Ireland. This is the oxygen Liveline needs.

And this is when Sexton’s friends feel the need to take to the witness stand. “Johnny is such an open and transparent person and that’s a very rare thing in professional rugby,” says Jackman. “Most people are magnolia and stay within certain lines. Johnny, when he’s happy, everyone knows; when he’s sad, everyone knows; when he’s angry, everyone knows.

“He is a phenomenal leader. I think the term is authentic leadership. What he says and what he does is not taken from a textbook or a webinar. It’s him. It’s true. It’s real.

“People see this kind of Roy Keane side to him but at the back of it, he is probably the most caring guy in a dressing room. Things he does, in terms of visiting sick children, giving birthday wishes, he always comes up trumps when he is asked to do something like that. In fact, he goes above and beyond.

“I’d say most of the fellas who play with him, if they hit hard times, will go to him first because they know he’d be there for them. Now, believe me, that’s unusual in a dressing room.”

Fanning agrees. The kid he knew in primary school has grown into one of Ireland’s most famous people. He remembers when Sexton was holding the tackle bags at Leinster, lining out alongside his pals at St Mary’s because professional rugby wasn’t quite happening for him.

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Then he broke through. Monkey removed from his back. He’d win his first Ireland cap; win a Heineken Cup, then another with a tour-de-force against Northampton in Cardiff.

Something happened to Sexton and not necessarily something bad. Success brought fame. Every loose word became a headline.

He accepted the idea that his job came with certain terms and conditions and knew he needed a public face and a private one. There’s a difference between the two.

“Johnny is actually quite quiet and reserved,” says Fanning, the friend from childhood. “In media and stuff, he is probably quite guarded because you know how it is when you are Ireland captain, if he says one thing wrong, it could offend so many people. But in terms of the dressing room environment, he was one of the biggest messers in there. I’m sure now that he is older, he has probably changed, but in his younger days, he’d have been in the thick of the craic.

“People say Johnny is so serious. I only know him as this funny guy although to be fair, he had a switch when he walked out of the dressing room. Then it was business.”

Success crept up on Fanning. He was in his mid-20s when he finally got his big break, signing for Leinster in 2013. Sexton sent him a congratulatory text from holiday but Fanning never received it, because he was just after changing phones.

“Next time he saw me, he came over with a smile: ‘Billy Big Balls is it now you’re famous! Too busy to reply to an old pal’s texts?’

“That’s Johnny. He’ll have a laugh with you; he’ll keep you grounded but do you know what else, he’ll look out for you. It annoys me when people get the wrong end of the stick about him because he’s a brilliant bloke not just a brilliant rugby player.”

johnny-sexton-celebrates-with-robbie-henshaw-and-bundee-aki-after-the-game Sexton laughs with Aki and Henshaw. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

PART FOUR: ‘I DID IT MY WAY’

A LITTLE BEFORE 1pm today, he will stand in a tunnel wearing an Ireland shirt for the 100th time. A low winter sun will pierce its glare on his face, the wind will come scudding in from the Irish Sea, the crowd will sing his name, the remaining 29 players will delay their entry and allow him walk into the arena on his own.

It’s only right, because it’s his 100th cap but in another way, it’s equally fitting, because he’s always done things his way. Once, a long time ago, after he’d broken into the Ireland side and had won a couple of Heineken Cups with Leinster, he signed a commercial deal with a world famous brand.

They asked him to tweet stuff out. Politely Sexton said he couldn’t because social media wasn’t his thing. If that was a small example of his single-mindedness then a much greater illustration of his self-worth came in 2013 when his contract ran out at Leinster. Way back then, Irish players and French clubs engaged in this farcical game of flirtation, pretending to like one another when everyone knew they’d never embrace. Sexton broke the mould.

“I was very involved in those talks; as were the IRFU,” says Mick Dawson, the Leinster CEO. “We wanted to keep Johnny and I think Johnny really wanted to stay but Racing, I’d say, just put a number on the table that was obviously good enough. A lot of the Irish guys had talked to French clubs, coming away from those meetings thinking ‘yeah that’s great but what I really want is a better offer here (in Ireland).’ That didn’t happen with Johnny in 2013. But look, we were delighted to get him back.”

Tellingly, that was the last time an Ireland player got selected for his country when employed abroad. “I needed him,” said Joe Schmidt in 2015.

He was 30-years-old then. Now 36, people have become obsessed about the line of succession, trying to figure out who’ll run the team when Sexton disappears. In their analysis, they spend as much time referencing the greys on Sexton’s hair as they do the shortcomings of his rivals. This, however, is not a portrait of a man playing out of his era. His selection for today’s game isn’t a glorified lap of honour. He’s there because he’s still the best out-half Ireland have. “The difference when he is at training compared to when he’s not is pretty noticeable,” said James Ryan earlier this week. “When he comes into practice you know it, you can feel it because of the edge that he always brings. His influence is huge.”

Looking from afar, Eddie O’Sullivan isn’t surprised. Now bear in mind, Sexton’s first appearance for his country came just 18 months after O’Sullivan’s final game as Ireland coach. “Yet he was never in the frame for international selection in ’07 or ’08,” says O’Sullivan. “That’s what impresses me now. It didn’t come early for Johnny Sexton but because it took him ages to get a grip on the jersey, he isn’t prepared to let go of it. He’s savouring every minute and why shouldn’t he?”

Here’s a question. Why aren’t we savouring every moment, too?

This late bloomer is now a guaranteed hall of famer, the best out-half Ireland have ever produced. “For me, comparing eras is practically impossible,” says O’Sullivan. “I played with Tony Ward, played against Ollie Campbell. Wardy was off the cuff; Campbell and he were quintessential No10s. Rog (O’Gara) and Humphs (David Humphreys) were also 10s in the purist sense of the word, great players in their own time.

“Johnny is a manufactured out-half, a player with many gifts for sure, but also one of his era. What I mean by that is that he is handed a playbook by his coaches and is told to then run those plays on the park. He does that expertly. Now this isn’t someone I know on a personal level, but he is someone I hugely admire. I’m not going to list players in order of greatness but all you have to do is look at his CV: two Lions tours, four Heineken Cups, three Six Nations titles including a Grand Slam, the mastermind of two victories over New Zealand. That’s a fairly decent resume.”

One that has earned him respect and also a lot of money.

But has it delivered him love from an Irish public?

We’re not so sure. Some only see the competitive rather than compassionate side to his character and paint a picture on a dark canvas.

But Jackman, Fanning, Alred, Ryan, McNulty, Dawson and many, many others have their own image of a kind and generous man and know that reputations do not rest solely on statistics and trophies.

That’s why they were keen to share their stories, to show that this man has a touch of class …………. and not just when a rugby ball is in his hands.

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Garry Doyle

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