Being Johnny Sexton isn't always easy. Although he has come to understand that playing with 10 on his back is more freighted with public angst and fear than any other position, there is still a residue of irritation when issues around his head and tackling arise.
“I thought that one was put to bed,” he says wearily. Parsing and deconstructing Sexton has become a national past time, just as it was with Ronan O’Gara before him. From that level of interest opinions inevitable follow. But another of his strengths is that he also has a few opinions.
An ongoing theme of terrace talk has been his tackling. “Why do I go high?” he asks. “I do it because it stops the opponent from offloading, we did it with Ireland when Les [Kiss] first came in. Everyone was doing it.
“All of sudden it’s become a big issue. For some reason people are linking it to head knocks. Crazy talk. Surely you’ve got more chance of being hit in the head if you dive at someone’s knees than you do tackling somebody high.
“As long as one person who never played the game says ‘oh, he’s more susceptible’ it’s gospel. It’s waffle. Tackling high is nothing to do with getting hit in the head. I feel that sometimes I tackle better high.
Hurts his career
“I can show you times where I’ve gotten hurt trying to tackle low, I can show you bad examples of me trying to tackle low.”
Why Sexton is exercised is because the flow of ignorant opinion generates not only unnecessary concern in his family but hurts his career.
His concussions have already been explained. Two bad and two ‘head knocks’ and no lingering medical concerns. But once it became a national talking point Sexton lost control of the situation. All he can do is stay stoic, while understanding that having to dispute and correct what is said about his tackling technique and his head knocks and his career, is giving the issue more oxygen.
“All the stuff that was reported really wasn’t true and it creates a perception about you,” he says. “I suppose if I was out of contract, clubs wouldn’t even consider talking to me last year with all the stuff that was in the papers. They wouldn’t have made any offers. The people don’t consider that.
“They just throw out that ‘this guy suffers from concussion’. I don’t. I had one issue that season and it was put to bed and I haven’t had any since. It’s doesn’t help that people give an opinion without any expert . . . and it’s not just some media, it is ex-players. It is frustrating and it is disappointing. They could pick up the phone and ask me but sometimes they don’t want the answer before they go on about it.”
He points out that Dan Carter, the man who replaced him at Racing 92, made 14 tackles in their 16-19 European win over Leicester last weekend and that aspect of the game won the French team the match.
He says that Paddy Jackson puts his body on the line every match and that outhalves are targeted because if they have to pick themselves off the ground 20 times, it may affect their kicking. Jackson will be targeted this weekend. So will Sexton by Ulster.
He is sanguine on that as long as it is clean. That hasn't always been the case with Alex Dunbar shipping a yellow card in this year's Six Nations Championship for one tackle.
Tipped upside down
“The only one that I was a little bit angry about was the Scottish one where I got tipped upside down,” he says. “You could see I was angry by my reaction. That was the only one that I felt vulnerable.
“In the modern game every player on the pitch has to contribute to defence and to the physical side of the game. Paddy’s the same, he’s a very brave tackler.”
Sexton came back from France and thought “it would be plain sailing”. Now he gives an impression of wanting to move from early season disappointment to an end-of-season upwards curve, and pocket some personal and team goals.
He had been carrying a few knots and kinks. The recent week off has smoothed those.
“I had been happy with some of things before Christmas but obviously that was overshadowed by a couple of bad performances,” he says, determined to dish it out to himself as generously as he has to others.
“All you can do is try to get yourself right. If you can do that, you can lead by example.”