Johnny Sexton: 'I see this World Cup as defining for me'
He speaks in a low-tide hush, his thoughts gently caressing the shore of our conversation as little more than a whispered wave of words.
It is a surprise to hear Ireland’s most exacting field marshal – the general famed for the thunderous vehemence with which he barks demands for perfection during battle, who once stood over a stricken Ronan O’Gara as a matador preparing for the final sword-thrust – lower the volume button to church confessional mode.
Yet the quiet delivery in no way diminishes the authority, the conviction of his message; Johnny Sexton makes strong eye contact, his talk amplified by the blaze of intensity in those intelligent brown orbs.
There is something about him, that intangible quality called presence.
Even sitting among the unfamiliar leather and mahogany of an Aer Lingus boardroom, dressed in civilian uniform – tee-shirt and hoodie, jeans and trendy trainers – he radiates the innate self-belief of a man born to star on Broadway.
He is tanned and a portrait of athletic vigour.
He might be a Coolmore thoroughbred shining in his coat.
Sexton was ambushed last month by the sportsman’s most inexorable, most terrifying foe – he turned 30 on July 11 – but up close he retains the boyish, clear-skinned vigour of somebody who would be advised to carry ID if he ever went socialising in New York City.
Though he is A-list, he is different too from that alpha male caricature.
Maybe it is the fact that he is a sworn enemy of cliché, that he regards banality with the same disdain as he would an errant pass from his scrum-half; even when we serve
up the most predictable of questions, he refuses to bat back some bland, vacuous half-answer.
It is only on the field he kicks for touch.
He tackles each query as he did the fearsome French hulk Mathieu Bastareaud. Head on, indifferent to his own safety.
Whatever thoughts are inside are liberated, shared with his audience of three.
Johnny has Kerry blood but none of the mischievous “yerra” cuteness that is wired into Kingdom DNA.
The same demands that he makes on the field – to always find the best of himself, to never take a shortcut or look for an easy way out – are evident in every response during an all-too-brief 16-minute discussion.
He admits to Roy Keane Syndrome, the pathogen of rejection shaping him into an unrelenting, intensely-driven, losing-is-death character.
On doors slammed in his face he drew his route map to the mountain top.
“I never made it onto Irish schools team. I played Leinster schools two years in a row but got overlooked.
“I made the final trial, but didn’t get involved with the squad when I felt I should have been.
“I played a little bit my first year at 21s, then was left on the bench the second year. Stuff like that drives you on.
“I went into the Leinster set-up with guys like Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, they just went into the team and stayed there, got international caps, got Lions caps straight away, whereas I had to fight for every 10 minutes off the bench here, had to prove myself in training every day. So I got there a harder way.
“At times I have also had some hard lessons which have stood to me more than winning the trophies.”
Now post-BoD, he is the universally-recognised poster-boy for Irish ambition.
Not just the quarter-back, the conductor in the pit steering the orchestra, but the goal-kicker, the solitary figure in the arena, alone in front of a global audience of millions, holding the deeds to Ireland’s future.
Pressure of the most intense, unimaginable kind is his constant companion.
We mention how Michael Jordan – at the peak of his Chicago Bulls powers – admitted he might swap his fortune for invisibility; if he could have been granted one wish it would have been to disappear far from the madding crowd.
Do the unrelenting lights of fame, the expectation of being Ireland’s World Cup go-to guy, ever fill Sexton with a similar dread, a similar craving?
“Not really no. I think I live in a totally different world to Michael Jordan.
“Anyway, I think the older you get the more used you get to all the stuff that goes with being a rugby player, you get more comfortable with it. I can understand what he means, but I never really felt like that.”
So then, a genie appears right now and grants you anything you crave, what will it be?
“The World Cup (his laugh this time filled with evident longing)… no, I don’t know… what, like a superpower? Being able to switch off might be one, stop my mind from racing.”
He admits the overspill of his intensity, his insistence of playing each mistake on an endless internal rotation, can sometimes make it hard to breathe.
Many times since he missed the kick that would have done for the All Blacks 21 months ago, he had stood over a penalty and remembered that moment.
Yet time after time he suppressed the demons, nailed the kick, made himself become the shepherd steering the green flock to sanctuary.
He thinks he is getting better as he gets older (“the year I don’t get better I will give up”), more capable of compartmentalising.
Earlier this year, Brian O’Driscoll ordained Johnny the best player in the world.
Sexton knows the next two months will either endorse that status or throw it back in his face.
He is happy to embrace the moment which – though his bounty of Six Nations and Heineken Cup treasure is piled high as the Alps – he knows will define him.
“Yeah I see this World Cup as defining for me, I think everybody in the Irish squad does.
“It is such a big tournament and when you look at Irish teams over the last few World Cups, we haven’t performed.
“To be the first team to go out to the World Cup and do ourselves justice,
to live up to expectations would be fantastic.
“I think we need to look at Irish sport, the Katie Taylors, the Rory McIlroys, these types of people, to show we can be world beaters.
“At the same time we need to go out and perform to our potential. That’s where our focus will be. It is very easy to get dragged into that ‘this is everything scenario’ and tense up.
“But obviously when you get asked a question like that (if it is defining), the reality is, it is a very important few months, hopefully we can do everything right on the pitch and off the pitch to make it a few months to remember.”
The words are whispered, yet they are a shout from the rooftops. His eyes blaze so brightly the temptation is to dial 999.
On second thought, better to let the flame of hope rise to the night sky.
Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton was at Dublin Airport to encourage Irish rugby fans to make the smart choice and fly with Aer Lingus as they travel to support the Ireland team. Aer Lingus is ‘the official airline of the Irish rugby team’. Supporters can find out more at www.aerlingus.com.