Johnny Sexton trained fully with the Irish squad in Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium on Tuesday, with the Irish management confirming that the captain has passed his HIA three on foot of passing his HIA two after last Saturday’s first Test in Eden Park.
The independent match doctor had decided Sexton should not return to the pitch after losing his footing and falling into Same Cane - where his head was accidentally clipped by the All Blacks flanker. However, according to the new protocols issued by World Rugby prior to the July window, which appear to have generated more confusion than clarity, if a player passes his HIA two after a match and also his HIA three, which is conducted 48 hours later, it is deemed that he has not suffered a concussive episode. Sexton passed both and trained fully yesterday.
The confusion and disquiet is perhaps exacerbated by the case of Jeremy Loughman in the Maori All Blacks game in Hamilton last Wednesday, when he visibly staggered before being temporarily replaced for a HIA only for the independent match doctor to sanction his return 11 minutes later.
For some reason, the Irish medical team didn’t see video footage of the incident until half-time, and promptly withdrew the Munster prop. Dave Heffernan was replaced after staggering to his feet in the aftermath of his first carry last Saturday, and was deemed to have sustained a concussive episode without recourse to a HIA.
Accordingly, both Heffernan and Loughman are undergoing World Rugby’s new 12-day return to play protocol, thereby ruling both frontrowers out of consideration for next Saturday’s second Test in Dunedin and the following midweek meeting with the Maori All Blacks.
Given Sexton’s past history of head knocks and concussive episodes, that he should be deemed fit enough to play against the All Blacks within seven days of seemingly failing his HIA one is disconcerting for many people.
Yet the Irish management would also cite their cautionary treatment of James Ryan and Caelan Doris last season as evidence of their sense of responsibility toward their players.
Assistant coach Mike Catt faced the media in the North Harbour Stadium on what was a rain-sodden day in Auckland and on confirming that “Johnny is fine,” was not of a mind to discuss the confusion around HIAs and World Rugby’s protocols regarding the most profound issue in the sport.
“No, I don’t work for World Rugby. Johnny is fit. He is fit, he has passed every test he needs to pass, so from our point of view he is good to go on Saturday.
“He is a massive cog in there for us but I also think Joey (Carbery) came on and did well. We have got back up and, again, this is what touring is all about, our ability to adapt to whatever gets thrown at you. We have done that pretty well and we hope that continues.”
Amid the Covid and concussion cases, and the injuries which forced the departure of Iain Henderson and James Hume, further re-enforcements arrived in the shape of Ed Byrne and Stuart McCloskey on Sunday and Monday.
“Listen, it is what it is,” said Catt. “It was the same for New Zealand last week. Both teams are having to deal with it. We just get on with it.”
Although Ireland’s attack went pretty well in Eden Park, constructing and finishing three fine tries, they were also held up over the line four times and had another try by Joey Carbery dubiously ruled out by the TMO Marius van der Westhuizen, so Catt was asked how Ireland can sharpen their finishing.
“Yes, put the ball down on the ground is the easy way,” he said with a wry smile. “We created enough opportunities. The theme really for this week has been how accurate we need to be to take our chances and we were not accurate enough. We know our processes, we know the work, we are getting there.
“It is just a case of making sure we get there. The accuracy is a big one for me in terms of our kick, our breakdown, our passing accuracy has got to be spot on. We have got to go to another level for it to work for us.”
With particular emphasis on sharpening their lineout - Ireland’s primary source of attack and launch plays - Catt believes those additional levels can be achieved.
“I think set-piece has been a crucial part of it too to build momentum on the back of it. If we get a balance of our game right we can cause problems. We started off really, really well in the first half and then, at the start of second half as well, so when we get that momentum, we are very dangerous and it is just how we get to those positions so we can build momentum more often and a lot is down to the accuracy of how we do things.”
The closed roof at the FMG Stadium in Dunedin, particularly welcome given the forecast is for snow at the end of the week, is seen as ideally suited to the All Blacks’ high tempo attacking game but the Irish management have been saying much the same.
“Well, it is brilliant really. It is the perfect setting, a great challenge for us, it suits us down to the ground really; it should be a brilliant Test match.”