'It's fond memories' - Sexton on French lessons in  leadership, winning and what not to do

The Ireland skipper had two happy years in Paris but has had a friction 'from the other side' at times too.
'It's fond memories' - Sexton on French lessons in  leadership, winning and what not to do

FOCUS: Johnny Sexton faces the press at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown on Wedensday. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Johnny Sexton is bracing himself for the challenge.

The Ireland captain is comfortable with the tough examination his side will face on Saturday when defending champions France come to Dublin for a Guinness Six Nations showdown between World Rugby’s top two-ranked teams, rather it is the unwelcome attention he has become used to appearing in the French media on the eve of such fixtures that has him on edge.


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Sexton, now 37 and declared fit for his 111th Ireland cap at Aviva Stadium this weekend, has done the dance enough times to take a bit of pre-Test sledging in his stride but it has ramped up significantly when the former Racing fly-half has faced the nation in which he played for two seasons between 2013 and 2015, between two trophy-laden stints with Leinster.

It was in his final campaign for the Parisian powerhouse that a French neurologist stood down Sexton from all rugby for 12 weeks following four concussions in the previous 12 months. He made his comeback following an all-clear from the same clinician against France in the 2015 championship, but not before his Racing team-mate and opposing Test back-rower Bernard Le Roux recommended through the media that the Irishman wear a helmet.

When Sexton subsequently received a heavy hit in a clash of heads with France’s Mathieu Bastareaud, Le Roux’s pre-game banter was viewed in even poorer taste. The fly-half had the last laugh then, however, returning from his Head Injury Assessment to steer Ireland home to an 18-11 victory in a championship-winning season.

Yet that stand-down period has remained a focus, not least in 2021 when French radio station RMC ran an interview with the same neurologist, Dr Jean-Francois Chermann, that erroneously claimed Sexton had sustained around 30 concussions.

The player was understandably upset by the “highly inappropriate” suggestion and added: “I am pretty saddened and shocked by the inaccurate reports that were thrown out.” So yesterday, when Sexton was asked about his relationship with the French, he viewed it as a doubled-edged sword.

"From my point of view, I had a great couple of years there. I've got some great friends there, my son was born there so for me, it's fond memories,” he said.

“It's these weeks that things go the other way from the other side. Hopefully, it won't this week but we'll wait and see.

"But no, it hasn't soured it. I have great memories of living there and loved the country. I always think it's a great challenge playing against them. Their supporters are fantastic, they'll travel well at the weekend I'm sure like ours did last week."

Sexton’s on-field time with Racing was less fulfilling, as he explained.

“I probably got to a team who were in a little bit of transition… which frustrated me because I’d obviously left the best club in Europe at the time, but I had some great years and I learned a lot.

“I didn’t think (so) at the time but I remember meeting up with (then Leinster head coach) Matt O’Connor for a coffee just before I came back and he thought it did benefit my game because I had to figure out how to try and win games differently with a team that probably wasn’t as good at playing rugby as Leinster used to play or as organised, and I had to figure out a way.

“I think in hindsight he was probably right. Matt was a very intelligent rugby guy and yes, I probably did learn a lot. I learned a lot culturally, like what not to do. I learned a lot about myself in terms of leadership, more so in what not to do.

“So yeah, lots of lessons in my time there.” 

Expanding on what exactly he had learned not to do, Sexton said he believed those lessons have served his Ireland captaincy well.

“When I was signed and I had some meetings with the president, and he said: ‘I want you to change the culture and I want you to bring a winning mentality.’ And I went in all guns blazing and figured out that there wasn’t that many people there to do the same thing, whereas I should have gone back and tried to make friends first and build relationships, and it stood to me now.

“Like, when there are new guys coming into the environment here you need to build relationships with people and Andy (Farrell) is big on that. So it was a good eye-opener for me, and at least then when you’re coming from a good place in terms of standards, at least you’ve got a basis to work off with someone.” 

Ireland’s culture and confidence are in good stead with Sexton at the helm but the captain knows they will needed every ounce of knowhow and experience to get the job done this Saturday.

"In terms of when they weren't going that well, they still had that ability to score out of nothing with the individual flair that they had. But now they have added so much since (Fabien) Galthié and Shaun Edwards have come in.

“They're clearly more organised defensively, fitness-wise, they've got that power game which I'm sure they'll come with, and they've still got those brilliant individuals that can score out of nothing. We need to be on it right throughout and watch out for their key men."

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