Jonny jumping up for maiden Tour

Can you feel sorry for a man who is the best fly-half in the northern hemisphere, is about to move clubs for a salary that most of us can only dream of and is set to lead a charge for sporting immortality playing for the Lions this summer?

Yesterday, you almost felt that the answer was ‘yes’.

It must be rather odd being Jonny Sexton at the moment.

For most of us, leaving Dublin for France, with the inherent cultural and communication issues that come with it, would be enough of a challenge for one summer.

Yet before then comes that emotional farewell from Leinster, one which would be far sweeter if he does so with Amlin Challenge Cup and RaboDirect Pro 12 winners’ medals tucked into his suitcase. And before he moves to Racing Metro comes the small matter of the Lions tour, with the near-certainty that Sexton will be wearing the famous 10 shirt as Warren Gatland’s tourists look to defeat Australia and win a series for the first time since 1997.

This is not to say Sexton is bemoaning his fortune; far from it. As he faced the media at the Lions’ kitting out day in London, the 27-year-old took every question head-on, and with a large dose of good-humour.

But the underlying point is that Sexton is keeping so many balls up in the air he may well drop one.

“There is a lot going on,” explains Sexton, with a wry grin.

“First, I have a big end to the season with Leinster. That was a big decision, to leave my home province, so the next two weeks will be really big in that regard.

“The Lions is the pinnacle of any rugby player’s career, so I have to think about that – and then there’s the move to France. There’s a lot in my head, but I am just trying to worry about it one week at a time. I think that’s the best way to deal with it.

“And I’m fit. I had a month or two off [with a hamstring injury suffered in the Six Nations]. It feels really strange to be so fit at this time of the year. I’ve only played four games and I feel like I’m only just starting. I feel great.”

That is certainly excellent news for Leinster, as they prepare to face Stade Francais in Friday’s Amlin Final and then Ulster in the Pro 12 a week on Saturday.

There is an end-of-an-era feel at present, with Joe Schmidt leaving to succeed Declan Kidney as head coach of the Irish national team and Brian O’Driscoll expected to retire following the Lions tour.

“The guys at Leinster are proud of what we have done and we want to finish on a high,” said Sexton.

“We want to get two trophies to finish, and to send Joe off in style. To get to six finals in the last three years is pretty impressive from Joe.

“Finishing on a high with Leinster is the most important thing in my mind now. Then it will be the Lions.”

And what of the Lions? It is odd to talk of rugby’s most famous side as an after-thought, but that is what they are at present. Club finals have deprived Gatland of 15 players during the crucial two-week training camp that started yesterday, including all six of Leinster’s Lions and Ulster’s Tommy Bowe.

As such, Owen Farrell – the only other specialist fly-half in Gatland’s squad – will have a huge advantage over Sexton when the squad flies to Hong Kong for the game against the Barbarians on June 1.

“Owen will have a headstart on me and he might play that first game,” acknowledged Sexton. “When I come in, a clear structure will already be in place and it will be about me fitting into that.

“I will build up a relationship with Owen pretty quickly. I’ve only met him a couple of times after internationals but I am really looking forward to working with him.

“Owen stood out when we played England [in the Six Nations]. That day told me he is a good, resilient character. I have watched him put in some pretty big performances for England over the last couple of years. He’s a great player.”

Farrell might not have been the only English fly-half on tour, of course. Another Jonny – Wilkinson rather than Sexton – was the name on everyone’s lips when the squad was announced, the 33-year-old having ruled himself out for fitness reasons.

Yet it is perhaps a sign of Sexton’s maturity that his reaction to that news was one of disappointment rather than delight.

“A lot of people said to me ‘it’s great that Jonny wasn’t picked, you have a better chance now’,” said Sexton.

“I looked at it the other way – I would have liked for him to go and would have loved to learn from him.

“He is a bit of a legend. I looked up to him. I was 16 and he was winning the World Cup. It would have been great to learn from him.”

But we have already reached the point where many are looking to learn from Sexton. A Lions victory on his first tour would only serve to enhance his stellar reputation, and he is already well aware of the pressures on him.

“I have spoken to Brian about the hype and he says he has never seen it so big from such an early stage of the season.

“He was struggling a bit to manage it. That shows how important it is, how much it means to everyone.

“To go on four tours, as Brian will, is incredible. He has only won a couple of Tests. Guys like him and Paul O’Connell, hopefully we can help them tick off a box they have been wanting to for years.

“Am I ready to be a leader alongside them? Yes. I’m going to have to be as we only have two 10s and we will have to take control of this team.

“I learned from mistakes I made in my early Irish days, when I was coming in for Ronan and being a bit tentative. That is only natural, but I think I have learnt and will do a good job for the Lions.”

And actually, as he says it, maybe you can’t feel sorry for Jonny Sexton after all.


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