Full steam ahead: Johnny Sexton speaks his mind
Ireland’s pivotal outhalf is keen to address ill-informed comments about his injuries
On an almost daily basis, it seems, you can’t open a paper, turn on the television, listen to the radio or go online without somebody having an opinion about Johnny Sexton.
Amid the sniping from the French media, here at home he’s been advised to retire for the good of his health, to take himself out of the firing line in defence and to tackle lower. And that was before the British media and England head coach Eddie Jones weighed in this week. This season has been open season on Johnny Sexton.
Talk about living in a goldfish bowl. Still, it must be touching that so many pundits and punters care about his wellbeing?
“That’s one way of looking at it,” he says with a wry smile as he casts his eyes thoughtfully to the sun-kissed lawns of the Carton House Hotel. On Thursday’s media day, we managed to find a quiet room at the back of the hotel prior to the squad’s coach ride to Dublin Airport. For half an hour he speaks with his usual thoughtfulness, but he looks more strained than normal.
The constant barrage of commentary about him, which he dispels as ill-informed and agenda-driven, has evidently upset and annoyed him, not least for the possible effect on his family and friends, and the slight on the Irish medical staff and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
“Look, it can be pretty frustrating for me,” he says. “I don’t go searching for stuff. I don’t get the papers to see what everyone says. I just can’t. As someone said to me, I’m probably too sensitive to take in everyone’s opinion, because I do care what people think.
“If they’re talking about my game or they’re criticising me, I don’t get involved with that. But it’s different when people come out and say that at the World Cup I was hiding concussion; that I had an injury at Leinster and I was hiding concussion; that I hurt my neck against Wales and I’m hiding concussion; and then that I was concussed again against France.”
“Could you imagine that if every press conference I did I mentioned someone in the media and it’s terrible that he’s got a serious illness, like Alzheimer’s or dementia, and persistently, persistently said it? I’d be in the High Court.
“I can’t do that, but for some reason people are allowed to say that I’m concussed when I’m not. And it’s not even because of me. It’s people close to you, they’re the ones that really care and then they’re worrying, ‘Maybe he actually is hiding something?’ But to suggest that the IRFU and doctors would be willing to do that is just crazy.”
“Even that was precautionary. That was: ‘What we’re best off doing is giving you the 12 weeks off so as to make sure you don’t have any problems in the future, and you can have a long career’. Because the danger was that in one game [against Australia in November 2014] I got a couple of bad bangs and I was feeling some effects, and then you could continue on and you do have serious problems,” he says.
“I had mild, mild symptoms, and I could very easily have played on, but it was the best thing I ever did in that regard, and I haven’t had any trouble since, and that’s the bottom line. Maybe people don’t want to hear that but I’m trying to put it to bed.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me either,” says Sexton. But that your parents must be worried? “Well yeah, they must be, because of the stuff that’s being written. But then there’s no concern amongst the people that actually know what is going on.”
He has even been advised, by George Hook, to retire.
“He thinks I should have retired when I was 21,” says Sexton, laughing. “He’s still in the O’Gara camp even though Rog has retired. Look, what can you say to that? I don’t know if he actually believes that. You’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt, and people have to promote themselves, they have to sell papers. People look after themselves at the end of the day.”
Sexton admits to making mistakes in the past. “I’ve made the mistake before of trying to play on with injuries, and it’s cost me and it’s cost the team. I look at that All Blacks game and I tried to play on with a torn hamstring,” he says, citing the gut-wrenching defeat in overtime to New Zealand in November 2013.
“I missed a kick that ended up being very costly, whereas if I had just come off when I hurt myself maybe things could have been a little bit different. You live and learn, and you can’t be the hero and play on. But there is no way the IRFU or the doctors here would allow me to play with concussion.”
He cites the examples of Brian O’Driscoll in that game, Seán O’Brien against England last season and Keith Earls against Wales two weeks ago.
“I could go out at the weekend and I could get a knock on the head and I could be concussed. Every player could be, and if that happens well, then, I’ll miss a game. I’ll go and do the return-to-play protocols,” he says.
“And I’ll say one other thing, and that is the coach, Joe [Schmidt], with his son and his family situation – and there are other coaches where I wouldn’t have said the same – would be the most cautious out of all people, especially concerning the head. If you’ve got a knock, you’re off.”
When Sexton was stood down in November 2014 for the aforementioned 12 weeks, it was reported that this followed four concussions in a 12-month period. Matt Dawson, for one, wrote yesterday of Sexton’s “string of concussions”.
So how many concussions have you had?
“There were other occasions when I had one or two minor symptoms. It’s a grey area, but I’d say I’ve had two proper ones. Two,” he says.
“One was when I was 23, and that was probably the most serious one, and nobody wrote about it. And then I got one against Australia [in November 2014] but because I had taken a couple of knocks previously I was advised not to play for 12 weeks. Two ‘outright’ ones in my career.”
Running outhalfIsa Nacewa
“I think I carried the first four balls I got,” he recalls, laughing. “After one of them I must have got hit, because I was coming out with some crazy ‘calls’ that didn’t exist. I think it was Drico who told the doc, ‘Get this guy off’.
“But that was a serious one. That was one where I had a little bit of memory loss, but I’ve never had any serious symptoms after other ones.”
Other ones? “No, for example against Wasps I passed that HIA, because I got a bang on the head the doctors thought it was best that I don’t go back on. It was clear that I got a head-on-head, but although I didn’t have any symptoms, they kept me off. Because of the big reaction to it, it’s actually prompting players to play on. I really don’t want to have another week of this, another week of me in the papers like this.”
“It’s funny. I didn’t get picked for Leinster for half a season because I couldn’t tackle and I wasn’t brave enough,” he says.
“But for people to say going lower in the tackle is going to reduce the risk [of concussion] is absolute nonsense. How could going lower prevent concussion? I’ve as much chance of getting a knee in the side of the head as I have of an elbow in the side of the head or a head to the head.
“It’s just nonsense and you’d be surprised at some of the people who say it, people that have played the game and tackled the exact same way that I tackle. I can show you times when I’ve chop tackled or tackled low. But sometimes I feel it’s best to go high, to slow the ball down or try and get a turnover. I helped get two turnovers against France. I’d be happier trying to contribute to the team than trying to please people commenting on it.”
You tell him that he has made 22 tackles in Ireland’s two games to date, more than double any other outhalf in the Six Nations. “Thank you,” he says with another smile. “Alan Gaffney, who I learned so much from, used to tell me that as a ‘10’ I had to pass, to kick, to run and tackle. Just get good at those and your decision-making will come. Tackling is part of the game. Teams are going to target the ‘10’. I’m going to have to make tackles this weekend. I look forward to trying to make them and that’s the way I’ve always looked at it.”
Yet it appears to come at a cost, Sexton having completed 80 minutes only once in seven starts for Ireland this season.
“How many times has Rory Best or Jack McGrath finished games?” he says. “Anyone who plays in a specialist’s position often gets taken off with five or ten minutes to go. There’s been games when I’ve been fully fit and Joe has taken me off, whether it’s because he wants to use the guy on the bench or save you for the next week.”
Indeed, he didn’t finish 80 minutes once in six starts for Ireland last season and did so only once in nine tests in 2013-14.
“After I made the tackle I stayed down for a few seconds because I knew then that I’d hurt my groin and deep down I knew I was going to have to come off. I was gutted.
“I got up, the medics came over, they tested my groin. I said: ‘Let me try to run it off’. I tried to take the next kick-off, felt it straightaway and came off, but I got a bang from [Louis] Picamoles just as I was trying to run it off. Because I stayed down for a split second after the tackle, that was probably where the story [of concussion] came from.”
After training lightly on the Wednesday, Sexton took a full part in the Captain’s Run on the Friday, which was two days before the game. “Things started to tighten up a little bit at the end. I went for a scan and the second scan showed that I had torn my groin. Maybe if the first scan had looked a little bit different I would have stayed off my feet longer that week. But that’s genuinely how it unfolded.”
That we cluck over Sexton like mother hens is testimony to the way he plays and his influence on this Irish team. He is Ireland’s most important player. Simple as.
Too much hope was hung on his return to Leinster, whose exit from the Champions Cup compounded the World Cup exit, which was the single biggest disappointment of his career. But against Wales his strong running game augmented his distribution and kicking.
“Since the start of 2016 I’ve been really happy,” he says, citing the games against the Ospreys and Connacht. “And then I was pretty happy with my form against Wales. A couple of things against France didn’t go right. It was pretty wet in Paris. I don’t think people realise how bad the conditions were. I was looking for space in behind, down the middle; one got touched and another I got my angle a little bit wrong. Those were two mistakes and maybe I could have shifted it but you’re trying not to over-work the guys. But I was pretty happy with my place-kicking [seven from seven in two games], kicking out of hand and tackling.”
Reality and perception
“We’re not going to run in to a concrete wall all the time. Joe’s not a silly man. We have to realise we’re not as big as other teams and we’ve got to figure out other ways to beat teams, and we’ve done a pretty good job of it over the last 2½ years.”
“We played some pretty good stuff against Wales, played with the ball in hand for the majority of the time and created a lot of opportunities.
“Against France the conditions were pretty tough. We’ve had a good look at a couple of things we could have done better with ball in hand. People say we kicked 75 per cent of our ball, the truth is we kicked 25 per cent, which is less than other teams whose coaches say we kick the ball. But that’s probably because they respect our kicking game, and are trying to talk us out of doing it.
“We’re clever enough to stay focused on what’s in front of us. A lot of teams who play against us play 14 men in the front line and one guy standing back there by himself. That’s what Wales do a lot to us.”
“It’s exciting, and the guys that are coming in fully deserve their chance, Josh [van der Flier] and Stu [McCloskey] and Ultan [Dillane] on the bench. These guys have been in great form for their provinces. I’m really looking forward to getting out there with them. I know Josh, and I’ve only trained with Stu for a couple of weeks but I’ve already had to tackle him and it’s not easy, so I’ll try to get the ball into his hands.
“It won’t be perfect, with new combinations. But hopefully it will be good enough.”
With Sexton there, there’s every chance. Kick-off, you’d venture, can’t come quick enough for him especially.