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Aaron Sexton discusses 'tough decision' to choose Ulster Rugby over athletics career


Speed machine: Aaron Sexton
Speed machine: Aaron Sexton
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Aaron Sexton, the schoolboy sprint star of Ulster A's British and Irish Cup campaign last season, has revealed that he has known for at least a year that he would pursue a career in rugby rather than athletics.

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An Irish Under-20 record holder, he raced competitively for the last time two weekends ago in the under-age European Championships, and admitted he was desperately disappointed to bring the curtain down on his athletics career with a fourth-placed finish.

Now part of the Ulster Academy structure, the back-three player is sure he's made the right choice.

"Obviously it was a tough decision with athletics being a large part of my life," admitted the former Bangor Grammar pupil.

"My dad being my coach and stuff, it was such a big part of my life, but I knew myself it was coming for a while. It was an easier (decision) than I thought.

"It had been looming over me for a few years so I saw it coming for a while, but for the last year or so it has been rugby.

"By the end of last year, after a few of the matches, it was an easy choice to go for the rugby."

When compared to the relative solitude of sprinting, the camaraderie he experienced in a team environment was certainly a tick in the rugby column.

"There is a real brotherhood in there," he said. "I enjoy being with the lads and I enjoy a team environment.

"Everyone here is trying to push each other to be better. There are times that you are out of gas but when you hear someone chirping in your ear it pushes you on. Definitely I like to have the team sport and be with the lads every day, I would far rather do that than be alone."

In a time when talented children can be forced to choose between sports at an early age, Sexton wouldn't swap his record-setting experiences on the track.

"I have been fortunate to continue both," he said. "There are a lot of sacrifices of course. You have to be so disciplined, and I have given up a lot of things, but I would recommend to anyone to do both sports for as long as you can."

It was a year ago now, while preparing to begin his last year of school, that Sexton was called in to train with Ulster for the first time, ultimately appearing in a pre-season friendly while going on to really catch the eye in the A side, scoring seven tries in six games against professional opposition.

Doing so while yet to sit his A-Levels, coupled with viral videos of his sprint successes, has rendered him the most talked about Ulster prospect of the professional era but he does his best to insulate himself from the steadily building hype.

"I try not to listen or read too much about what is said about me," he said. "I just try and put my best foot forward and do the best I can do every day, putting in the extras.

"I will definitely work for it. I just have to make sure I am doing the right things with recovery, sleep, and putting my best foot forward."

While a number of the more experienced Academy men have been training with the senior squad, who in turn are without their Ireland contingent who are preparing for the World Cup, Sexton's exposure to the camp last summer has certainly made his transition into full-time rugby, and the rigours of its pre-season, easier to handle.

"To come in fit (from athletics training), I am almost one step ahead of everyone already, and I have the experience of last year," he said. "You (already) know what it takes to be there, so just try and drive yourself to that standard. Of course I was (nervous) last year. I did not really know what the whole plan was.

"It was a bit of a shock to the system, but it was a nice shock, I guessed I must have been doing something right. Everyone was so welcoming, it was a lot easier than I expected.

"I was surprised when I came in and they said you get breakfast. I was actually really happy that I was getting a wee bit of breakfast, it meant mum did not have to cook me one.

"I knew a few of the younger boys like Angus Kernohan and they really looked out for me and then the coaches introduced themselves to me and made it a lot easier. The likes of Stuart McCloskey and Craig Gilroy, being Bangor guys too, they were both looking out for you. I learned so much last year."

There were still, of course, a few moments where a young man, who could not yet legally buy a pint, had to pinch himself that he was sat as a contemporary to bona fide rugby stars.

"At the first meeting I was one of the first ones in and was sitting down just watching everyone walking in," he recalled.

"The Irish boys were in camp at the time but then a couple of weeks later you see Jacob Stockdale walking past not long after scoring seven tries in the Six Nations. Yeah, I was a bit speechless at times, but he has helped me out a couple of times now.

"You probably do not realise how close you are to them."

In the immediate future, Sexton's obvious attributes are set to see him become involved in the Sevens set-up, a well-timed call-up given their involvement in the World Series next season.

"This year will be different for me, a different environment. I do not really know what the year is going to hold for me. As long as I stay fit and keep taking steps forward, hopefully the rest will take care of itself," he added.

Given Sexton's track record, it would be no surprise if he progressed in double-quick fashion.

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