Jonathan Sexton jumps aboard Paris Métro seeking to add to Heineken Cup glory
Ireland and Lions fly-half gambles that move will not hinder his international chances
No player has been defined by the Heineken Cup quite like Jonathan Sexton, and in leaving the "boys in blue" of Leinster, with whom the Ireland and Lions fly-half won the tournament three times, for the blue-and-white hoops of Racing Métro in France, he is hoping the success continues in a different jersey and a different country.
As for the differing opinions about how the competition should be run, Sexton sees no need for change but accepts the decision is not his to make. "I like the format the way it is," he says, "but as a player you get on with whatever format there is, and if there's a new competition all the players will try and win that.
"The French and English clubs think the Irish have it easy, that they rest their players from the league and play them in the Heineken Cup. The other argument would be that French clubs have in some cases 35 or 40 international players, whereas the Irish squads have maybe four foreigners each and they have to produce homegrown talent to play in the Pro 12. There's arguments for and against."
This season's Heineken Cup kicks off next Friday with Leinster guided from fly-half by Jimmy Gopperth, a New Zealander, or Ian Madigan, heir-apparent with Ireland to the departed Sexton. The off-field rows will play out; a battle for cash and control.
In 2009, Sexton embodied the on-field dream, stepping in for the injured Felipe Contepomi to steer Leinster to a Heineken Cup final win over Leicester that was repeated against Northampton in 2011 and Ulster a year later. In between, in 2010, he was absent when Leinster lost in the semi-finals. Now, at 27, and having started all three Tests on a winning Lions tour in Australia, he has arrived in Paris with a unique set of honours and an autobiography out that captures the excitement.
Speaking from his apartment in Châtenay-Malabry, a quiet suburb south of the city centre, he brings the story up to date: "It was such a whirlwind straight after the Lions, coming to France. It would have been nice just to have a week to sit down and enjoy it. I guess there'll be plenty of time for that when I retire.
"When I look back on the tour, it'll be on the Third Test and the celebrations after. There had been a massive fear I had that we weren't going to get to show what we were all about. At times as a back you want to throw the ball around, but you've got to do what's right against certain opposition. It had to be a controlled gameplan; the coaches got it right."
Sexton is a heart-on-his-sleeve man. The book, Becoming a Lion (Penguin Ireland), relates how he is sometimes embarrassed by his own competitiveness, apologising to Lions forwards for bawling at them in training. "People shouldn't see that you're disappointed or see that you're so happy, but I don't mind being like that," Sexton says. "At least it means that it means something to me, and people can see that."
And now he yearns to build a new spirit with Racing, a classic old-new French club: plenty of history but bolstered by the big bucks of one man. Strictly speaking, Sexton is not a pioneer: Jeremy Davidson, Trevor Brennan and Aidan McCullen were Irish internationals in France before him. But with his Lions team-mate Leigh Halfpenny among a host of Ireland and Wales players coveted by the Top 14, and so much doubt about the Heineken, which is crucial to the Irish provinces' earnings, does Sexton expect more to follow?
"I hope there's not an exodus, and that I don't contribute to there being one," he says. "I can't speak for the other guys but I hope they stay where they are. It's obviously best for the Ireland team. I don't think it's inevitable. If they're happy with how things are at home, they'll stay."
Amazingly, considering his achievements, Sexton says he is not certain Ireland will pick him for their autumn internationals against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand. "Things might be different for me over here. I'm desperate to play and I think Joe [Schmidt, the new Ireland coach previously with Leinster] will pick on performances, but there's a lot of good young players in the provinces and I'm sure he'll be trying to bleed them in as well."
Racing had won five matches out of eight this season before last night's home match against Grenoble, and have Juan Imhoff, Juan Martin Hernandez and Juandre Kruger to return from the Rugby Championship. Their Heineken Cup pool with Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins and Scarlets is tricky to predict.
And the tournament overall? "The Irish clubs are still up there with the favourites," Sexton says, "and you've got your usual Toulon, Clermont, Toulouse – and Racing will be up there in people's eyes." No mention of the English, you'll note.
Meanwhile, Sexton planned last night to record the Munster-Leinster match and watch it later with Racing's kicking coach, none other than his old Munster rival Ronan O'Gara. They famously used to be at each other's throats but now they're sharing deliveries of Barry's Tea, getting a nice strong Irish cuppa every morning. "It's great to have someone to talk to, to bounce things off," says Sexton, proving that anything can change, if you want it to.
Your guide to this year's Heineken Cup
Understand that winning isn't everything
No team who fly through to the final by winning all their matches have ever won the Heineken Cup, so hedge your bets on Toulon if they stroll through Pool Two. It may look easy for Toulouse and Saracens, in with Connacht and Zebre, but even if both heavyweights qualify, one of them will be away in the quarter-finals. If one team make it out of the Pool of Death – Leinster, Northampton, Ospreys and Castres – with five wins and a loss, keep an eye on them for the title. This is also the only pool in which every team have a 2013 Lion, Richie Gray having joined the French champions, Castres.
Find a friend in high places
David Cameron brushed off Tuilagi's split-second bunny-ears gesture at the Lions' post-tour Downing Street reception, but Ospreys made the better impression. "Boris Johnson made a beeline for me," reported the hair-bear prop Adam Jones, while team-mate Richard Hibbard was on Welsh first-name terms with the PM: "It was nice to go and meet Dai," the hooker said.
Take your earplugs to Toulon
The final act of last season's final was a triumphant "Pilou, Pilou" blared out by the new champions' owner, Mourad Boudjellal, over the Aviva Stadium sound system. It's the club chant, though to non-Côte d'Azur ears it's just "She'll be coming round the mountains when she comes" with extra testosterone. Toulon's Delon Armitage has been assailed by opposing fans' boos this season for his unsportsmanlike wave to Clermont's Brock James when he scored in the final.
Stay fit — or have safety in numbers
Saracens will be missing Brad Barritt for the first four rounds, and another England centre, Leicester's Manu Tuilagi, is another early absentee. The French way of coping with rugby's attrition rate is to run huge squads.
Stay mentally tough
Clermont Auvergne had Europe at their feet last season… until the last 20 minutes of the final, when they cockily overplayed their hand and allowed Toulon and Jonny Wilkinson to kick them to painful defeat.
Bump up your transfer fee
Another big-name Blue, the Wales and Lions kicking king Leigh Halfpenny, has allegedly been tapped up by Toulon – surprise, surprise. For all the searing try-scoring talent of men such as Tim Visser (Edinburgh), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont) and Simon Zebo (Munster), sticking the ball through the sticks counts for a lot. Saracens' Owen Farrell pulverised Racing Métro with a record 10 penalties in Nantes last season.
If there's a prize for ambush marketing…
It goes to BT Sport, whose name is emblazoned on the Edinburgh and Glasgow jerseys (top right), while the clubs' owners, the Scottish Rugby Union, pocket the cash for the Heineken Cup being broadcast on Sky. Double whiskies all round!
Trust the bookies to get it right?
If so, Toulon will emulate Leinster in 2011 and 2012 and Leicester (2001, 2002) as back-to-back Heineken Cup champions. Jonny's boys are every bookmaker's favourites, with punters and odds-makers clearly dismissing last week's shock league loss to Oyonnax as an aberration. Next in the odds list come Clermont, Leinster and Toulouse, followed by England's Premiership leaders, Saracens, at a best-priced 9-1.
Know your opponents' fears
Cardiff Blues are long overdue a good Heineken Cup run, but their star man, Sam Warburton, admits to being scared stiff of spiders. Good knowledge for whoever looks after the changing rooms in Toulon, Glasgow and Exeter.
Follow the money
No English club have won the Heineken since 2007, and they moan they are under-resourced compared with the French. The European competitions made England's clubs €10.8m (about £9m) last season – under Premiership Rugby's (PRL) plans to break away next season they have been promised a minimum €24m. PRL say the uplift will wipe out losses, but for clubs like Leicester who are in profit, you'd guess it would immediately be waved under the noses of big-nameWallabies, Springboks and All Blacks.
Heineken Cup pools 2013-14
Pool One Leinster, Northampton Saints, Ospreys, Castres Olympique
Pool Two Toulon, Cardiff Blues, Glasgow Warriors, Exeter Chiefs
Pool Three Toulouse, Saracens, Connacht, Zebre
Pool Four Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins, Scarlets, Racing Métro
Pool Five Ulster, Leicester Tigers, Montpellier, Benetton Treviso
Pool Six Munster, Perpignan, Edinburgh, Gloucester
First round: 11/12/13 October
Second round: 18/19/20 October
Third round: 6/7/8 December
Fourth round: 13/14/15 December
Fifth round: 10/11/12 January 2014
Sixth round: 17/18/19 January
Quarter-finals: 4/5/6 April
Semi-finals: 25/26/27 April
Amlin final: Friday 23 May, Cardiff Arms Park
Heineken Cup final: Saturday 24 May, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
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