Belfast Telegraph

Rugby ace Johnny Sexton preparing for life after retirement

Elite sportspeople can win fame, fortune and adulation. But in many cases, your career is over before you hit 40. Establishing a second career takes determination, but many find the skills learned on the field of play can help tackle the challenges of business. Fearghal O'Connor reports

Johnny Sexton in action for Ireland
Johnny Sexton in action for Ireland
Former Ulster star Chris Henry who recently retired

Johnny Sexton could tell there was plenty of post-match criticism two weeks ago when he brought one of his children to swimming lessons. "I tend to ignore a lot of the noise and the Press. But you know it's bad when people are coming up and asking are you OK. They mean well," he says.

The current World Rugby Player of the Year shipped plenty of blame for his own performance in a disappointing Irish loss to Wales.

But life goes on. Three days later Johnny is in Dublin's Westin Hotel talking about the future.

He has swapped his green jersey for a black suit and is thinking about life beyond and after rugby.

Even the best, highest-profile sports stars eventually face the inevitable reality that their career cannot last forever.

For Johnny, a new deal he has signed to become brand ambassador with recruitment giant CPL is, he says, more than just the usual corporate ambassadorial role that sports stars sign up to. It is potentially his first exploratory steps into some as yet unknown new future career.

At 33, he is still completely focused on playing in the World Cup this autumn and is contracted to continue playing through to the next British and Irish Lions tour in 2021.

"Unless they revoke my contract after the weekend," he says with a mischievous laugh.

It's a joke, but he also knows that in the context of a professional rugby career - as a player approaching his mid-30s - time is not on his side to have ambitions in the sport beyond that tour.

"Of course it is something that you fear as a professional athlete. You fear the day that it ends because we have such a privileged life and a career doing what you love to do. I dread the day that it finishes, but the guys in CPL have promised to give me a full-time job whenever I decide to finish rugby." Again he laughs: "A 10-year contract on the same wages I'm on now."

But Johnny is actively thinking about what comes next once his rugby career winds down in a couple of years.

"I have a business degree from UCD, so that is very much a possible route. I'm very interested in management and leadership. Coaching is another possibility.

"I love the game. I would love to give back to the game rather than retire and just give out about all the other rugby players around the country. There are amazing young players around the country, and in Leinster especially, that I'd love to help. But it doesn't always work like that.

"Sometimes as a coach you have to travel and I have three young kids so I don't foresee myself going travelling again - I have already had that experience."

It's a dilemma that many sports professionals face: stay in the game or cut your ties and build a new life beyond it. The deal with CPL is "potentially" the first step for Johnny to build a professional life outside of the game, he says.

"I'm delighted to get a chance over the next two years to learn what goes on at a senior level and about their leadership roles and styles. It's something I'm looking forward to."

Cormac Loughlin, CPL client services director, says the role will involve six to eight events a year as part of the company's new World Talent Series, as well as strategy days with CPL clients.

He says: "Johnny wants to learn a little bit about our business and we want to learn a little bit about what Johnny has to offer around high performance.

"For us, high-performance athletes don't become under-performance businessmen. It just doesn't work like that. So we are looking forward to learning and Johnny I'm sure is looking forward to learn from us too - what we do as a business, our product and service lines and meeting a few of our customers."

Johnny adds: "For me it is great to be in with these guys [CPL] so that I can learn how to deal with people in that environment.

"In rugby you can say or do what you want in meetings - it's no-holds barred - but in business it is slightly different, you have to watch your P and Qs a little bit. Learning those types of things is valuable for me."

By Thursday Johnny is back in the rugby bubble and on his way to Edinburgh for Leinster's Friday night match at Murrayfield.

His coach at Leinster, former England coach Stuart Lancaster, briefly played professional rugby but worked as a PE teacher during his playing days.

He appreciates that even players as high-profile as Sexton need to put effort into their careers off as well as on the pitch.

"I was a lot different from the lads who are playing now," says Stuart.

But, he says, even now, a typical non-international PRO14 player certainly does not earn enough to sit back for too long when their final contract runs out.

"There's no way you would earn enough money to put your feet up for longer than 12 to 18 months. The financial reality of not earning an income soon starts to bite," says Stuart.

He sees the pressure around retirement from professional rugby and what to do next inevitably building for players as they go into their 30s.

"That pressure does build, but it builds if the player hasn't done much about it until that point. But the players who constantly look for personal development and opportunities to work outside of professional rugby and gain experience and qualifications and network during their career, they tend to transition into work from full-time professional rugby reasonably well.

"Where issues occur is when players don't use the window between the ages of 20 and 30 effectively. Ultimately, as the clock ticks down towards that last contract it leads to questions of 'What am I going to do next'?"

That moment, he says, can leave a huge void in a player's life.

"Their sense of purpose, their regular weekly schedule changes, their financial situation and income changes and it can leave players struggling. But I do think clubs are doing more and more to help players."

What stands out to him at Leinster is the number of players who have studied for a degree while at the club's academy.

"The sensible ones are the ones who build on those qualifications and develop their network and experiences during their 20s."

Recently-retired Kerry Gaelic football legend Kieran Donaghy knows all about how difficult it is to keep the flame burning for as long as possible.

Like Stuart, he did not have the benefit of a professional wage to sustain him through a football career that saw him win four senior All-Ireland medals. During the early part of his career he worked for one of the major banks.

It was not for him.

He says: "When you are 26 or 27 you are just rolling along with the team, trying to win at all cost. Nothing else matters. Next thing you know you might have a kid, you are getting a bit older and your body is not what it was when you were 21 and you are asking yourself 'How long is left?' Your mindset certainly shifts to what else you want out of life and there are loads of opportunities."

Mr Donaghy grabbed one such opportunity that arose at an event he was attending on behalf of the bank. The speakers included Colin Teahon, the managing director of Kerry-based PST Sport, a leading installer of artificial grass pitches.

Mr Donaghy was so impressed with his talk that he walked up to him and asked for a job. Mr Teahon said no, but called him back the next day. Mr Donaghy is now business development manager for a company that has laid pitches for everyone from Munster Rugby to Chelsea FC.

"I played my better football when I moved from the bank to PST. I found that how I played had a lot to do with how things were in my personal and work life.

"If a player is worried about what he or she is going to do next it can have an adverse effect on performance. If you are happy in what you are doing or happy in what your plan is to do next, you will perform better."

But Mr Donaghy is concerned that in the GAA world there is a growing tendency for elite amateur players to stay in college for as long as they can because the student lifestyle is more conducive to the stresses of inter-county football.

"The working life is hard for these guys. A lot of them opt to stay as students so they can live a semi-professional kind of life.

"But they hit 30 and next thing they are not the star player any more. They are dropped off a squad and they find themselves with no work experience, no mortgage, no house. That's a worry."

Agencies such as Bernard Brogan's Legacy - which represents Johnny - or Dublin-based Sports Endorse, which has grown rapidly over the past year to now represent well over 100 Irish sportspeople, including Mr Donaghy, work to support athletes by managing sponsorships, appearance fees and other opportunities.

Professional boxer Jason Quigley, a Sports Endorse client, has secured a commercial deal to represent Ireland West International Airport. Just like Johnny with CPL, Mr Quigley wants to learn as much as he can about that world outside boxing before he has to move on from his sport.

He says: "The next time you hear of me I could be fighting in Vegas for a world title for a couple of million. Or I could be starting up a psychology sports group for young up-and-coming athletes. Who knows? There's no guarantees in life."

Belfast Telegraph