Johnny Sexton: Numbers game not stacking up for injured Ireland outhalf

Outhalf has completed just one match for Ireland and Leinster this season and five in the last 12 months

Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton after picking up an injury during the Six Nations match against Italy at the Aviva stadium last year. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton after picking up an injury during the Six Nations match against Italy at the Aviva stadium last year. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

 

The art of manipulation is a sight to behold. On January 25th irishtimes.com, reporting from the choreographed Six Nations launch, announced: “Johnny Sexton will be fit for opening Six Nations match.”

There tends to be varying degrees of information whenever Joe Schmidt takes his seat in front of microphones. Especially when the questions concern Sexton (the Irish management, through Paul Dean, neglected to inform the public that Ian Keatley was in camp all along earlier this week).

The headline took the Ireland coach at face value: “Johnny took a bruised calf into the game against Castres and it just tightened up.

“There’s not a lot of damage there, nothing’s showing up that’s overly significant. Johnny’s already starting back doing a little bit. We’d be confident he’ll be able to train next week and therefore be fully available to face Scotland.”

Sexton did train, and pulled up. Not unlike that week before the 2015 World Cup quarter-final.

Confusion reigns about when the injury was initially sustained. This week we were told it happened, according to Schmidt, during the Castres game: “He is probably frustrated that he did the injury in the first place in Castres and that’s hung over to now.”

We know, from coaches and players, that Schmidt prepares for his tightly controlled media interactions – 48 hours before a game, about 48 minutes after a game and sponsor’s gigs (to the 51-year-old’s eternal credit, he does plenty of public speaking and coaching in his own time, for no fee, in schools and clubs all over Ireland) – with the same precision he lends to preparing for the opposition.

Rarely is a single word misused. What Schmidt said about Sexton on January 25th, while not untrue at that moment, may have denied his old mate Vern Cotter the smoothest preparation. Because preparing for Sexton remains vastly different to facing Paddy Jackson.

By Tuesday word had broken about Sexton’s latest withdrawal, so by Thursday’s briefing Schmidt opened with a worrying stat of his own: “I think he has played about 82 minutes for the national team in the last eight Test matches so for us it is a real frustration.”

The last eight Ireland games brings us neatly back to the 35-25 win over Scotland last March. Sexton was finally showing signs of durability, despite being forced off with a damaged neck due to heavy collisions against Wales and France, only to be sin-binned for behaving like a flanker on 76 minutes.

At least the game was won. That’s important, clearly, for him. Against Wales, George North used him as a speed bump in the 71st minute. The game was evenly poised at 13-all. His hands went behind his neck, and slowly he got up before retreating to the wing as play rumbled on.

“That was unbelievable, 27 phases” said Donal Lenihan on RTÉ when Wales were awarded a penalty. “There are bodies everywhere. It’s like a battlefield out there at the moment.”

Rhys Priestland made it 16-13 as Sexton removed an ice pack before gingerly walking back to halfway. He departed four minutes later, in obvious discomfort, holding his chest, but only after a brilliant penalty levelled the match and he found touch deep in Welsh territory from the restart.

“You talk about bottle,” Lenihan adds. “This guy certainly has that.”

The same could be said six days later when Yoann Maestri took a detour from a ruck to elbow him in the head. Sexton put the resulting penalty over. In the 70th minute Ireland led 9-3, thanks to him, but their scrum was stranded under the crossbar. Sexton burst from the line to make a try-saving tackle on Maxime Medard, from which he couldn’t get up.

“Neck,” came the call over Jaco Peyper’s ref mic.

“You do worry for him Tommy,” said Eddie Butler on BBC, “because he does go in high. Outside halves shouldn’t be exposed to this sort of clubbing.”

Bowe: “Ah with Johnny, the physical side is a massive part of his game, but the teams are obviously starting to see this and going down his channel.”

Off went Sexton, on came Ian Madigan. From the next scrum France ran a similar play and Medard slalomed over. The game ended 9-10.

An uninjured run followed until Connacht hooker Tom McCartney’s huge hit in the Pro 12 final led to a summer rehabbing from shoulder surgery which ruled him out of the South Africa tour.

And still, he looked better than ever against Munster last October.

That’s, seemingly, the night his hamstring problems began but he was passed fit to travel to Montpellier.

Earlier that week Isa Nacewa stated: “If Johnny starts, Johnny kicks the goals.” Come kick-off Nacewa was place kicking because Sexton felt a “tightness” and the pitch was heavy. He was pulled at half-time as Nacewa’s late conversion secured a valuable bonus point.

“It’s very minor but [high up on the hamstring] in a place that would be quite risky,” Sexton said before facing New Zealand in Chicago.

“The other guys who have had a little strain there before have made it a big problem. If you’ve got a big problem up there you are looking at 16 weeks or more. It’s a case of just making sure that it was 100 per cent, which it was, and then just making sure that it was managed back into it.”

Sexton started in Soldier Field, lasting 58 minutes before being forced off, and was passed fit to for the All Blacks visit to Dublin two weeks later but he did the other hamstring after just 17 minutes.

Then there was the calf. A bruise. Nothing really, yet he left the field in Castres last month after just 21 minutes.

So, Paddy Jackson, and possibly an underused Keatley, are charged with keeping the scoreboard ticking over in Murrayfield.

“Ian Keatley’s time at outhalf is not too much different to Ian Madigan’s,” countered Schmidt, not unreasonably, on Thursday. Schmidt has had access to Keatley because – until this summer anyway – he is a Munster player.

But the numbers don’t lie. Sexton is 31 and, in fact, has played 151 minutes for Ireland in the last eight Test matches. Clear proof that his career has made a disastrous entry into the peak years. He has been injured, more often than not, since being obliterated by Louis Picamoles at the World Cup in October 2015.

He does seem to be playing smarter by avoiding, while his temper holds, the kamikaze collisions of previous seasons and the concussion problems that forced a 12-week lay-off in 2014 have not resurfaced.

At least Johnny Sexton is not in the Jonny Wilkinson category. After kicking the winning drop goal in extra-time of the 2003 World Cup final, Wilkinson played just seven of the next 41 England games. He didn’t play another Test match until the 2005 Lions tour due to neck surgery, a blood clot on his biceps, damaged knee ligaments, groin trouble, a lacerated kidney, shoulder injuries and appendicitis. All between 2003 and 2007 (when he promptly guided England back to a World Cup final) before a remarkable Indian summer in Toulon.

On retirement in 2014, Wilkinson said: “The problem is not so much that players are getting bigger, it’s that the bigger ones can run faster. That is the issue because that is what creates the power.”

Maybe there is a silver lining. Jackson piloted Ireland to victory in South Africa last June and against Australia in November, so road wins in Edinburgh and Rome are not beyond his impressive capabilities. But France at the Aviva, Wales in Cardiff and England over St Patrick’s weekend in Dublin will need the brilliance of a well rested Sexton, and his leadership, if a Grand Slam is to follow.

Lions coach Warren Gatland joined the chorus this week: “There is going to be some real attrition in New Zealand and you are going to need some players that are going to be able to handle what is going to be an incredibly tough and physical tour with the 10 matches and hopefully we have a group of players that can last that time and you don’t pick up too many injuries. That’s something that we have got to be aware of too.”

As the incumbent 10 from the 2013 tour, that’s a target for the man himself.

“I don’t think the team relies on any one player and I don’t think we have for a long time,” said the unbreakable Jamie Heaslip. “Johnny’s a great player but we have played many a game without Johnny and had success. For this group to be successful going forward it needs to be a successful group, it needs to be a strong group.”

Which they clearly are. Now, just imagine what Ireland would be like if Sexton was there more often than he is not. Imagine what they could achieve.

Games Played

23 from a possible 41 (56%)

Minutes Played

1,348 from a possible 3,280 (41%)

Games completed

5 from a possible 41 (12%)

Match-by-Match

01/01/16 Leinster 13-0 Connacht – 71 mins

08/01/16 Ospreys 9-22 Leinster – 77 mins

16/01/16 Leinster 25-11 Bath – 6 mins (74-80 mins)

23/01/16 Wasps 10-51 Leinster – 9 mins

29/01/2016 Newport Gwent Dragons 23-13 Leinster – Did not play

07/02/16 Ireland 16-16 Wales – 75 mins

12/02/2016 Leinster 52-0 Zebre – Did not play *

13/02/16 France 10-9 Ireland – 69 mins

20/02/16 Cardiff Blues 13-14 Leinster – Did not play *

27/02/16 England 21-10 Ireland – 76 mins

28/02/16 Zebre Rugby 10-27 Leinster – Did not play *

05/03/16 Leinster 19-16 Ospreys – Did not play *

12/03/16 Ireland 58-15 Italy – 50 mins

18/03/16 Glasgow Warriors 12-6 Leinster – Did not play *

19/03/16 Ireland 35-25 Scotland – Played full match

26/03/16 Connacht 7-6 Leinster – Did not play

02/04/16 Leinster 16-13 Munster – 76 mins

15/04/16 Leinster 30-23 Edinburgh – Did not play

30/04/16 Ulster 30-6 Leinster – Played full match

07/05/16 Leinster 50-19 Benetton Treviso – 46 mins

20/05/16 Leinster 30-18 Ulster – Played full match

28/05/16 Connacht 20-10 Leinster – Played full match

11/06/16 South Africa 20-26 Ireland – Did not play

18/06/16 South Africa 32-26 Ireland – Did not play

25/06/16 South Africa 19-13 Ireland – Did not play

02/09/16 Leinster 20-8 Benetton Treviso – Did not play

10/09/16 Glasgow Warriors 33-25 Leinster – Did not play

16/09/16 Edinburgh 20-33 Leinster – Did not play

23/09/16 Leinster 31-19 Ospreys – 79 mins

01/10/16 Cardiff Blues 13-16 Leinster – Played full match

08/10/16 Leinster 25-14 Munster – 68 mins

15/10/16 Leinster 33-15 Castres – Did not play

23/10/16 Montpellier 22-16 Leinster – 41 mins

29/10/16 Leinster 24-13 Connacht – Did not play

05/11/16 Zebre 10-33 Leinster – Did not play*

05/11/16 Ireland 40-29 New Zealand – 59 mins

12/11/16 Ireland 52-21 Canada – Did not play

19/11/16 Ireland 9-21 New Zealand – 17 mins

25/11/16 Scarlets 38-29 Leinster – Did not play*

26/11/16 Ireland 27-24 Australia – Did not play

03/12/16 Leinster 28-15 Newport Gwent Dragons – Did not play

09/12/16 Northampton 10-37 Leinster – Did not play

17/12/16 Leinster 60-13 Northampton – Did not play

26/12/16 Munster 29-17 Leinster – Did not play

31/12/16 Leinster 22-7 Ulster – Did not play

06/01/17 Leinster 70-6 Zebre – 55 mins

13/01/17 Leinster 57-3 Montpellier – 53 mins

20/01/17 Castres 24-24 Leinster – 21 mins

* Pro12 games during Six Nations or autumn internationals

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