'I’ve been stuck with this stigma of concussion and it's frustrating because it's not true'

Johnny Sexton has spoken about his irritation and anger at being so closely linked with the head injury despite suffering ‘two or three ever’ in his career.

The Leinster and Ireland out-half says there is nothing wrong with his tackle technique.
The Leinster and Ireland out-half says there is nothing wrong with his tackle technique.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

TALK ABOUT LEINSTER’S squad depth and the visit of Glasgow Warriors will follow, but Johnny Sexton presented himself for media duty at the province’s UCD headquarters yesterday keen to set the record straight.

The out-half’s media appearances are sporadic over the course of a season, particularly at Leinster’s weekly briefing, so there was a sense beforehand that it was something he asked to do, rather than something he was obliged to do.

And following the confusion over his Head Injury Assessment (HIA) against Exeter Chiefs last month, and the conflicting reports which ensued, Sexton moved to clarify the situation while also speaking for the first time with a sense of frustration, and to a certain degree anger, over the ‘stigma of concussion’ which has attached itself to his career.

Firstly, whether or not he passed that HIA in the opening minutes of the Champions Cup pool clash at the Aviva Stadium.

Having suffered a bang to the head in his attempt to tackle Chiefs flanker Matt Kvesic, Sexton underwent a HIA, and didn’t return to the field of play.

Afterwards, Leo Cullen, the Leinster head coach, confirmed to media that Sexton had failed the HIA but his comments were contradicted hours later when Joe Schmidt said the 32-year-old had, in fact, passed the procedure which tests if players have suffered a concussion or not.

Sexton explains: “Look, I can take part of the blame for that because I spoke with Joe after the game and told him that I was fine, that I was a bit shook by the initial contact but that I passed all my questions, which was true, but we thought it was best not to go back on the pitch because of how I felt on the pitch.

“That was why I failed my HIA. I failed my HIA before I probably started it. So, the decision was probably made even by how I reacted to the tackle.”

“It wasn’t that bad but I just got it on the soft part of my head. Was I concussed? No, probably not but was it the right decision not to put me back out? Probably, yeah, because I was probably startled by the collision.”

Johnny Sexton leaves the field Sexton left the field at the Aviva Stadium for a HIA. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Under World Rugby rules, players removed from the field for suspected concussion must still go through the full HIA procedure even when a medical decision has already been made to withdraw them from the action permanently. This is what appears to have happened in Sexton’s case, as he then followed further return-to-play protocols in the days after.

Although progress has been made, most notably with the introduction of the HIA procedure, head injuries and concussion remains an area of huge confusion, contradiction and uncertainty in rugby. There are grey areas over terminology and, perhaps, most worryingly is the lack of clarity coming from the medical profession over it.

“It’s very hard,” Sexton continues. “Think back a few years ago that maybe was the case, but now, it’s very hard, even with Tadhg [Furlong] at the weekend, initially he was ok, then they said, ‘this guy might not be right’, but he’s perfect today. They just thought even if he’s potentially got one [concussion], he’s off. They’re looking after us better than they ever have.

Is there times people are knocked down, get back up and play on? Of course there is. One of my worst ones [concussion] ever was about 10 years ago, it was probably my only really bad one, and nobody would have known. I made the tackle, got up and literally no one would have known. But the guys beside me knew, I was calling calls that didn’t exist, and was arguing they were right.

“It is an uncertain thing, but we’re being looked after better and better, and it’s getting harder and harder to hide it. We’re being educated that you can’t hide it. It’s harder to get away from the doctors.”

Sexton has been at the centre of the debate for a number of years because of his history with concussions, having been forced to take a 12-week break from rugby during his time in France with Racing 92.

After suffering a number of head knocks in the space of a small space of time during his stint in the Top 14, Sexton was advised by Dr Jean-Francois Cherman to take time out of the game.

When asked if the incident against Exeter evoked memories of that difficult time in his career, Sexton was clearly annoyed by the concussion ‘stigma’ he carries as a result of that period.

“What happened in France was very precautionary,” he insisted. “I don’t know how many times I have to talk about this. I picked up three mildish…sorry, one bad one and two mild knocks and this guy [the doctor] says: ‘look, you’ve had a few knocks to the head over the course of a few months and normally the protocol is that you take some time off’.

“He said: ‘I recommend that you do that. They have signed up in France that this doctor makes all the calls. So, look, I argued it tooth and nail. I didn’t want to take the 12 weeks off. I’d rather have just a couple of weeks off because I was actually fine after two or three weeks and I suppose I’ve been stuck with this stigma of concussion being attached to me when I have probably had maybe two or three ever in my career.

Johnny Sexton The out-half during yesterday's squad session at Donnybrook. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Like, I have had plenty of bangs on the head but I’ve probably had two or three concussions. But you talk about me in concussion and it goes hand in hand and it is very frustrating for me because it’s not true and also because we’ve got insurance companies we’ve got to talk to that don’t believe that I don’t get concussions and it can be pretty tricky.

“Yeah, it’s not ideal but I know the truth and the doctors that work with me know the truth and that’s the main thing but the way that sometimes…even the way that it was reported. It was obviously my fault that I had told Joe that I had passed the questions, which I did, but the HIA was failed before it started so that’s where the mix-up came.

“We should start maybe looking at how good it was the doctor’s didn’t put Johnny back out there because they thought he might had a concussion.”

Sexton’s tackle technique has also been questioned. Given his height and penchant for holding an opponent and the ball up in the tackle, he invariably looks to go high, which has raised more concerns over his safety.

He adds: “It’s not foolproof, if you go low you can get a bang in the head. I saw one over the weekend, a guy goes low and gets a knee in the head. I don’t buy it fully in terms of going high can cause…I’ve been criticised before for my defence, as a young guy, it wasn’t up to scratch, I tried to improve it, could I go low?

“I’ve gone low before, but often in that [10] channel it’s about trying to stop the ball and I’m a tall guy so I don’t generally have a great position when I go low.”

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And that’s when Leinster’s media manager stepped in. There’s a game against Glasgow this weekend, remember.

Sexton is expected to return to Leinster’s starting XV having come off the bench to score  a late try in the demolition of Ulster last weekend, a victory which made it seven on the bounce in both the Guinness Pro14 and Champions Cup for Leo Cullen’s men.

An eighth at the RDS on Sunday would be another significant step towards the quarter-finals of the European competition having won all four outings so far, including those back-to-back wins over the Chiefs.

Johnny Sexton celebrates his try with Max Deegan Leinster resume their Champions Cup campaign this weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

On his return from France, Sexton offered an honest assessment of the environment he walked back into, stressing that certain things needed to change in order for the province to get back to where they were during those bygone glory days under Michael Cheika and Schmidt.

He was asked yesterday how does this squad, and the current culture, compare to the one which saw Leinster win a third European Cup in four seasons back in 2012.

“It is difficult to compare because the game it is even so different five years on,” the St Mary’s man says.

“I look at some of those Heineken Cup games from 2012 and defences even are so much better now. I think in that 2012 team we probably had five or six players who were world-class and the rest of us who were at a really good level but I think now in this squad there’s guys of that similar quality throughout and similar quality two or three deep in some positions.

“That’s our strong point at the moment, our depth, and you can see with some of the injuries we have particularly in the back row we can still put out a back row of that quality out.

“There’s loads we need to keep working on both on the pitch and off the pitch. It starts at the top and that’s the most important thing. Leo and Stuart have done a great job in terms of standards are high and that we’re expecting more and more from each other every day. It’s been really good and this year you can see that by how we’re performing on the pitch.”



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