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'I’m not going to go and be stupid. I’m not going to risk anything' - Sexton moves to ease health concerns

The Ireland captain says he has full confidence in the return to play protocols.

Johnny Sexton during an Ireland squad training session last week.
Johnny Sexton during an Ireland squad training session last week.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Updated Feb 11th 2021, 3:07 PM

LAST WEEK JOHNNY Sexton spoke about still loving the hype and pressure that comes with a Six Nations campaign, but you imagine he’d like the spotlight to be shining on someone else at the moment.

It’s turning into a long week for the Ireland captain. Whether he likes it or not, comments made by two French neurologists have put his health in the news again. Sitting down for his weekly captain’s briefing yesterday, Sexton made it clear he didn’t want to give the story too much oxygen, saying he was “saddened and shocked by the inaccurate reports that were thrown out”.  

Later in the day, one of the doctors in question moved to clarify those comments which had clearly hit a nerve with Sexton, who made a point of mentioning patient-doctor confidentiality at the start of his briefing before requesting the conversation move on.

Sexton revisited the subject in the second half of his conference. His involvement in Sunday’s game against France is still dependent on him completing the rest of his return to play protocols. It’s a process he has confidence in, insisting he wouldn’t take chances with something as serious as his long-term health.  

“I do all the tests that are in place and if I don’t get through them, I won’t play,” he said.

“But if I do get through them then I will play. It will all depend on how I do and how I feel. That gives me confidence and that will give the people close to me confidence that I’m okay.

“I’m a dad of three and a husband and I’m not going to go and be stupid. I’m not going to risk anything and no-one in this environment will risk (my health). I’ve had the talk with the doctors and the coaches and they’re (saying) ‘just do the right thing’… Like, if you’re right, you’re right, if you’re not right, you’re not.

“That’s how it’s always been. I’ve never felt any pressure to play after a knock on the head. It was a blow at the weekend, and a good blow, and the fact that the docs were out so quick is a sign of how good they are. They don’t let you get up too quickly and all those things that can sometimes make it look even worse as you’re lying there, but they’re telling you not to move.” 

Of the 30 plus players in Andy Farrell’s squad, nobody gets as much attention as Sexton. His injury situation feels like a consistent theme of recent campaigns, but you have to go back four years to find the last time he didn’t start a Six Nations game for Ireland.

Part of the concern now is that head injuries are not as black and white as the bangs and knocks a rugby player ships to other parts of the body. Even if Sexton were to pass his protocols without any hiccups, that won’t be enough to stop some people feeling uncomfortable with the quick turnaround between games. 

Another factor is that the topic of concussion has never been under as much scrutiny in rugby. In December, a group of former professionals revealed their experiences with long-terms effects caused by concussion, and their plans to take legal action against various unions.

“It’s very hard for me because I don’t want to go against those guys,” Sexton continued.

“The times, the way we’re looked after now, is very different. Some of the stories that have come out of guys playing on Saturday and getting knocked on the head, then playing on Tuesday and getting a knock on the head, coming in on Thursday and getting knocked on the head, playing Saturday… that doesn’t happen anymore.

“There’s always a little bit of contact in training but it’s rarely full contact. We’re already reducing all those times. 

johnny-sexton-gets-treatment-from-dr-ciaran-cosgrave-and-physio-keith-fox Sexton was removed with 10 minutes to play in Cardiff. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Back in the day, after the knock I got, maybe I would have been thrown out there today for example and then you’re susceptible to something else. The way that we’re looked after is at the top of sport really, the way rugby is. I feel for the guys, I really do, the guys that are struggling now. 

“I feel good,” he added. “The reports, I don’t want to go back to it, but they were so inaccurate it just makes me angry.”

Regardless of whether or not Sexton takes to the pitch on Sunday, France are coming to a city they haven’t won in since 2011 as favourites. The last meeting between the sides in October showcased all that is good about this young French squad, Les Bleus scoring four tries and producing some scintillating rugby on a wet Paris night.

“That was our first time playing against that French group and you could see the difference in them compared to French teams over the last number of years that we’ve played against,” Sexton said.

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“They’re a good team but we had lots of opportunities in that game, in the first half especially. We didn’t really play well in the second half of course but in the first half we dominated large parts of the game but just didn’t capitalise on our pressure. 

“That will be key this week, to make them feel scoreboard pressure by being clinical.”

The out-half also returned to last weekend’s defeat in Cardiff, and the challenge of playing most of the game with only 14 men following Peter O’Mahony’s red card.

“In terms of managing the game, it is tough going. You can’t do any of the lineout plays you practiced because for a seven-man lineout, you’re playing it with six so you’re playing against an extra defender in the backline.

“In scrums, you’ve a centre in the scrums to make sure you’ve got the necessary weight in the scrum so you can’t play any of the backline moves you’ve prepped.

“You’re kind of ad-libbing, making stuff up out there. We obviously do prep sin-bins but that’s 10 minutes, it’s a bit different when it’s 70 (minutes).”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Ciarán Kennedy

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