On the day he became the youngest ever winner of the UCD Alumni Foundation Day Medal, Ciarán Sweeney met with Jonny Sexton to talk about his achievements on and off the pitch
They say that you never get a full sense of something by watching it on TV, and that you have to be there to experience the true feeling. I was never really sure what to make of this until last weekend, when Jonny Sexton came to UCD to collect the Foundation Day Medal. On the TV, the world watches a leader, screaming instructions at the backline around him and then to the forwards in front of him. The world sees someone who puts his body on the line in the rain or shine for his country, always fighting to the end of every game and every season. The world sees someone whose true talking is done through the magic of his precision kicking, both on the ground and with ball-in-hand, subconsciously inspiring all those around him, both teammates and supporters.
Last Friday evening I took these characteristics into consideration before meeting Sexton. However, at the UCD Foundation Day Award Ceremony, Sexton portrayed a very different personality to the one we see on the field. A very assured, but quiet and reserved figure arrived in UCD, to humbly collect the Foundation Day Medal, in the same week that he was shortlisted as one of five players for Rugby World Player of the Year.
The Foundation Day Medal is an award presented to a distinguished UCD graduate who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field of expertise. Having graduated with a Commerce degree from UCD, very few could argue that in that intervening period, Sexton hasn’t made an outstanding contribution to Irish sport and Irish rugby. When asked about the achievement, he said it came as a great surprise to him “I’m a bit lost for words. I didn’t realise until now that I was the youngest ever winner, but I suppose to be put in the same bracket as previous winners is a huge honour for me and for my family as well, and I’m very humbled by it all”. The list of Foundation Day Medal winners is no stranger to Irish Rugby Internationals with Brian O’Driscoll having won the Medal in 2009. Sexton explains the honor of joining such names saying “to be joining [O’Driscoll’s] company for anything is a great honour and Micháel O’Muircheartaigh is on that list as well for his contribution to sport and to the sporting world. To be considered amongst them so young is just a huge honour and like I said I’m not sure I deserve it, but I’m still very grateful for it.”
The Foundation Day Medal wasn’t the only honour for Sexton last week, as well as picking up his award in UCD for his contribution to rugby at a national level, his contribution to rugby on a global level was also acknowledged when he was shortlisted for the World Rugby Player of the year alongside All Blacks pair Julian Savea and Brodie Retallick and the South African duo of Willie Le Roux and Duane Vermeulen. “It was a shock I suppose because Mike Brown won Player of the Six Nations and then Andrew Trimble rightly picked up the Irish Player of the Year, Player’s Player and the Media Player of the Year, so it came obviously as a surprise that I got in as the Northern hemisphere representative.” However, as humble as ever, Sexton was adamant that the real reason for the nomination was the strength of the team around him, “to get a nomination is obviously very flattering but from an out-half’s point of view you’re only as good as the team around you. From that point of view I’m sure everyone on the team can take some credit for it because without them I can’t perform.”
Sexton, as he so often has been for Ireland, was the catalyst behind their impressive win against the Springboks the Saturday before last with a man of the match performance, but what impressed him more than anything was the win considering Ireland’s lengthy injury list. “If you had a full strength Irish team against a full strength South African team you would expect to give as good as you can and it would be a close game. I think we were just written off, everyone thought we were going to get hammered. I think that’s why it’s one of our greatest ever victories.” Praise was also given to Coach Joe Schmidt and the rest of the backroom staff who were the masterminds behind the tactics that led to the victory. “A lot of it is down to the coaches, they came up with a great plan. They made us believe that no matter who we were missing , our guys could come in and do the job. And those young guys that came in, the likes of Jack McGrath and Rhys Ruddock were just outstanding on the day and made for a very special day.”
With Sexton now having made 46 caps for his country, he is one of the veteran players in terms of experience. However despite the void left by O’Driscoll at centre for Ireland, Sexton is optimistic of the new wave of players coming through the ranks. “I think what these young guys are, they’re just physical specimens. The game is changing and it’s great that these young guys are coming through. Guys like Robbie Henshaw really stood up to the plate and he’s got a huge future ahead of him if he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps working hard.” Sexton will finish out the last of the Autumn Internationals against Australia before heading back to complete his final season at French club Racing Metro. After the end of this season, he will return to Leinster and will once again pull on the blue jersey in what will be an eagerly awaited return for everything in the province.
American Nobel Peace Prize Winner Henry Kissinger once said “the task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” Alongside Ireland captain Paul O’Connell, Sexton is leading this Ireland team to unexplored dizzy heights, heights which have no limit if Sexton can keep up his form and fitness as we head into another rugby calendar year, and more importantly, a World Cup calendar year.