Ireland’s training standards don’t drop without Sexton, insists Mike Catt

Keith Earls set to be rested with Mack Hansen likely to return after bout with Covid

Johnny Sexton will lead Ireland out in next Saturday’s second Test at the enclosed FMG Stadium in Dunedin and according to Ireland’s attack coach Mike Catt the experienced outhalf will bring his full influence to bear in this week’s preparations as well.

The Irish captain did fail his HIA 1 after being replaced in the 31st minute of the 42-19 defeat last Saturday and did not return, but that did not provide confirmation that he suffered a concussive episode. Sexton subsequently passed his HIA 2 in the immediate aftermath of the match and his HIA 3 some 48 hours later meaning that, according to World Rugby’s new protocols, there was no evidence of a concussive episode.

The confusion and concern over Sexton’s wellbeing 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 an HIA only for the independent match doctor to sanction his return 11 minutes later.

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 an 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 Test in Dunedin and next Tuesday’s second meeting with the Maori All Blacks.

Meanwhile, the All Blacks second most capped player and chief lineout operator over the last decade, Sam Whitelock, has been ruled out of Saturday’s game and most probably the rest of the series after being diagnosed with delayed onset concussion, which under World Rugby’s new 12-day stand down protocols is now expected to rule him out for both remaining Tests.

As an outhalf who also played into his late 30s, Catt fully appreciates Sexton’s value in a week like this.

“Johnny is a world-class rugby player. He demands high standards and ultimately you want to get to a player-driven environment. That’s what Johnny brings. He brings a lot of confidence around him too. It’s business as usual for Johnny really, but it does help, yeah. It helps everyone, us learning from him too.”

Catt did not subscribe to the oft-held theory that standards noticeably drop off when Sexton is not on the training pitch.

“I don’t really look at it like that. We’ve got to prepare for a Test match, whoever is there - Joey (Carbery), Frawls (Ciarán Frawley), Harry Byrne - they have got to take control.

“But Johnny being there will always help them and I think that’s the growth in his game. He has been able to help these young guys understand what it’s all about in the environment and what it’s like to play in that international environment.

“Although he has got his own game to focus on, when he’s not around or he’s not training, he’s still got a huge role to play off the field as well.”

There was also much to admire in Carbery’s 50 minutes on the pitch, in the way Ireland maintained their attacking shape, scored two more tries and were held up over the line five times.

“I think what Joey’s good at is attacking the line and there were two or three opportunities there where he did. He showed and go’d a couple of times. The try, we can argue all day really but that’s Joey at his best and we want to see more of that.

“The more we can see Johnny, Joey, Ciarán Frawley, Harry Byrne on the front foot the more we’ll get out of them and that’s his strength. So it’s the people around them, what they do but he’s fitted in nicely and he’ll grow on the back of it.”

Byrne returned to training yesterday after recovering from a niggly groin injury, while Keith Earls sat out training.

“Earlsy, two games in a row, 39-years-old, he needs a rest,” quipped Catt. “Two games in a row. Good on him.”

In addition to the Crusaders trio of David Havili, Jake Goodhue and Will Jordan all returned to training with the All Blacks - and Havili and Jordan are liable to be restored - as well as all bar Greg Feek of their coaching staff, Earls’ exertions add to the impression Mack Hansen will also return after overcoming Covid. He brings an X factor.

“Yeah, Mack’s cool,” said Catt. “He’s got a real understanding of the game, a really good rugby brain. He’s exceptionally skilful too, so again we’ll see. He trained very well today so it’s nice to see him back because it is very hard for those guys who’ve been isolated for 10 days. They just want to get out and do more and more and more. So it’s great to have him back.”

Reflecting on the All Blacks’ match-winning four-try salvo in the second quarter last Saturday, Catt believes Ireland didn’t help themselves and can prevent something similar happening again with more composure.

“We went error on error on error on error into half-time and we had opportunities to stop after that first error after that first try. We had opportunities to actually stop, slow it down, put ourselves in the right positions and we didn’t,” which seemed to cite Jamison Gibson-Park’s quick tap inside halfway when still only trailing 7-5 rather than securing a lineout inside the All Blacks 22.

“Again, it’s decision making. It’s decision making on the back of it, making the right decision, the right calls for us to be calm enough to go and do that.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times