As Jonathan Sexton is getting ready to step back in his european competition for the seventh year in a row, he shared a few words with us on his three Hcup titles won with his former Irish club of Leinster. It is impossible for him to chose which was the most special one.
You have won three European titles, which one would be the most special?
They are all different and all very special to me. I really couldn’t say which was the most special. The first HCup title in 2009 was very particular as it was the first one. Plus, I was quite young at that time, I was 23 years old turning 24, it was like living a dream.
The 2011 title was also very special as we went through really tough matches during the whole length of the tournament. In the pool phases, we had Clermont, Racing and Saracens. We managed to get out of this tricky pool to then be confronted in quarter-finals to Stade Toulousain which were at that time the last HCup champion. After that we got confronted to another big-shot of English rugby which was the Leceister Tigers, to then play the final against the Northampton Saints which won all their European game that year before arriving to the HCup final. I think that in 2011, we could really say that we were at the top of European rugby after defeating all the top European rugby squads.
The third one was pretty special too, because we managed to retain the HCup title from 2011 to 2012. To win this title twice in three years was something but to winning it twice in a row that was truly exceptional. I think very few teams managed to do that before us. It’s really a great feeling.
So yes, I really cannot say which was the most special, they all were special for different reasons.
What is your best memory about your Three European titles?
I guess my best memory would be the 2011 HCup final. Like I said, passing through so many tough teams, playing so many incredible oppositions, it truly was a great feeling to brand this HCup trophy. But beyond that, at a personal level, there were something really special about one game in particular, the final. Because, we were losing heavily at half-time, 22 to 6 if I’m right and we managed to come back to won the title. Something, I’m pretty proud of since I contributed to this come back, on game sheet at least, by scoring two tries in the second half and keep my good momentum in penalty kicks. I have never would have done this all by myself. But because of this, I probably think that was my best HCup victory.
How do you feel today, after last week-end’s home loss?
I think we were in a good place after the game in Castres, even though we lost. We scored a good try which was disallowed and were happy about how we defended. There was a good team spirit. But now, I think we took a bit of a backward step against Grenoble. So now, we need to react to that by putting up a good performance against Clermont. We will start up a new competition. Plus, we have a few of the guys back from the IV Nations, Juan, Juan-Martin and Juandré (Laughs). We can already see the quality that they are bringing into the squad even just from the week sessions… I’m very exciting to play with them. Hopefully, we will all improve and go back to the standard that we had through Castres, Bordeaux…
It is a special story between you and Clermont, you have met many times in the past through years. You will meet them once again, how do you feel about that?
Yes, I think that I have played them every year for the past four years, so obviously I know them very well and they know me pretty well too, but I joined a different team now so it’s obviously very different to play against them with the Racing squad. It will be a nice test for us, to see what level we are at. Plus, it is the first time that we will play against one of the top four teams of the French championship, at home.
Were you surprised by the TOP 14 level when you arrived here?
No, I have followed TOP 14 for the last few years now, I performed against French teams in the European Cup, so I knew how difficult it was. In many ways, it was probably easier when I played with Leinster as I knew all the players and vice-versa. We played together for a long time and were a settled team as at the moment at Racing we are at the start of putting the team together. We have to be patient but at the same time the players are impatient. We want to get better, coaches want us to be better and we all work on to reach that. Like I said, it is not perfect but up to last week, we had five wins out of eight which wasn’t bad, especially losing in Toulon, Toulouse and Castres, three top teams. Even we weren’t playing very well, we were winning. We even nearly won Grenoble, so that a positive aspect that we can take.
Difference between TOP 14 and HCup? The idea would be that in TOP 14 you mustn’t lose and in HCup you must win. Do you think that is true?
Yes, there are reasons for that. First of all, it’s refereed very differently in Europe, it’s much stricter in HCup. For example if a player slows the ball down it’s a penalty whereas it France, they would just look away. Another reason would be that players know them more as it is the middle of the season, you are ready to take more risks.
You as an experienced player in the Heineken Cup, for having winning it a couple of times, do you share advices with your new team-mates?
No, it’s a different team now, it’s a brand new experience to be here with them into this European competition. I only shared one thing with them earlier this week. It was that the first game in the Heineken Cup is the most important. If you win the first game, you are in good position. If you don’t, you’ll have to fight harder for the rest of the competition.
This season with Racing, you will probably play more games that you were used to in Leinster, do you fear injury?
No, I was maybe a bit tired against Grenoble as I played nine games in eight weeks. And you know after the lions’ trip, I didn’t have much rest, it was quite difficult. Normally with Leinster, I would have played one or two games perhaps as here I have played ten or probably got involved in ten and started in around seven or eight. It’s a very different pace but I love it that way, I love to play rugby.
Do you still enjoy your life here in France as much as when you arrived?
Yes, I love Paris. I’m really enjoying the challenge of TOP 14. As I said, I felt that I was getting better and better, except for last week-end as we had a difficult time at home against Grenoble. But now, I really feel more comfortable in the team, we are starting to show our capacity of producing plays. We are starting to gain on consistency and this is really important when you play among top teams. We must still work on that, it’s actually the next achieving step we are aiming for.
What do you miss the most from Dublin?
I don’t know. I loved playing for Leinster. It was a big and very difficult decision to make. But I would say that at different time, you mist different things. You know, sometimes you miss your family, sometimes friends but like I said, I’m making new ones here. I have my wife alongside me and we are really both happy here. We are enjoying our lives and I hope that the team and me will keep improving to the top. My sports life and personal life are linked together, when one doesn’t go too well, the other suffers of it. So I all want it to go well and I’m pretty happy at the moment. So that’s fine (Smiles).
What was your reaction when you first knew about Ronan O’Gara being your kicking coach?
I didn’t know at first. Ronan rang me and had a chat on the phone. Ronan is a good friend of mine so it has really been brilliant for me to have him here. It helped me improve and settle into this squad. Of course, it’s kind of awesome to have a friend as a coach, you can speak quite easier to him… He can be reducing the gap between the coaches and me. He could help me in saying something to coaches as he is a little more fluent than me at the moment (Laughs). It’s very good that way, plus we have a great relationship in our work, in our kicking sessions. I just must be careful of him not wearing back his boots (Laughs).
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Saturday 26th August