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Johnny Sexton rejects claims he ‘milks’ hits to win penalties

Ireland outhalf is in favour of global rugby calendar but not at expense of players

In a debate as broad reaching as player welfare, Johnny Sexton seems an apt choice. It is not always a position the Ireland and Leinster outhalf finds comfortable. His 'get on with it' drive can sometimes be frustrated by endless questions about health matters imagined or real. Today it is his shoulder, which, he says, is "good thanks".

The issue of 'fake hurt' first arose with Sexton in Ireland's 35-25 win over Scotland

Sexton’s body has always been a theatre of discussion that he is often asked to wearily defend. But he also understands that in the slings and arrows of the professional game, while sympathy is generally with him, he can neither win nor lose the perception game. It just is.

The issue of ‘fake hurt’ first arose with Sexton in Ireland’s 35-25 win over Scotland, when he copped flak for exaggerating the impact of Alex Dunbar’s reckless slam on to the Aviva turf after which he stayed on the ground clutching his head.

On the ref link, where conversations between players and the referee are made public, Scottish players could be heard accusing Sexton of “milking it”. In a post-match interview, CJ Stander was moved to defend his pivot.

“Johnny always gets marked. He always gets the big tackles and knocks, after the ball has gone,” said Stander. “This is rugby, you don’t milk it. If you have an injury, you lie down. He’s a tough player that would never milk a penalty like that.”

But the perceived ‘fake hurt’ slight is something that needs addressing. Does he stay down to give the referee longer to form a judgment different to the one he might have reached had the player jumped straight back to his feet? If the player is on the ground with the doctor and physio swirling around, is the insinuation the tackle was dangerous or malicious?

Anyone who has had a stinger knows what it feels like and you just need a little break to get over it

“A lot of those tackles are probably borderline,” says Sexton. “In the referee’s eyes, they were committed. You’ve got to trust that the refs will keep an eye on them.

A stinger

“There will be times you will stay down to make sure people have a look. To suggest that you are staying down to milk it, or whatever, isn’t the case.

“Anyone who has had a stinger knows what it feels like and you just need a little break to get over it.”

If you stay down, it is because you are hurt, as anyone who has had those injuries knows

The hits are real and, Dunbar aside, the actions of Scotland's Josh Strauss and England's Maro Itoje have shown how Sexton has become an object of interest for most opposition forwards.

“I was told by the media manager before you go into things like this. You could get asked about it. You need to be prepared,” he says. “That the more you stay down, the more they’re going to target you. If you stay down, it is because you are hurt, as anyone who has had those injuries knows.”

His injury profile and his resistance to leaving the field suggests Scottish accusations are flimsy.

But player welfare is the reason Sexton is in Lansdowne Road now and supporting the Rugby Players Ireland in their stance that the English clubs' proposal to squeeze the Six Nations Championship is flawed, not evidence-based and not good for Irish players.

Done at 33 years of age? O'Gara lasted until he was 36

In the push for a ‘global season’ and the demand from English owners that their best players be available more often, Irish players are being asked to compromise their bodies.

“I don’t think it’s coming into effect until 2019. I’ll be well done by then,” he says in a flat tone and no one certain whether he is being flippant or not. Done at 33 years of age? O’Gara lasted until he was 36.

Benefit the Irish

“Last year it was said this new Champions Cup format [which saw the quarter-finals follow more quickly on the heels of the Six Nations] was not going to benefit the Irish, but we learned from last year. The first game back after the Six Nations, it wasn’t perfect against Wasps,” he says, understating the second of two beatings Leinster endured at the hands of the Premiership side.

“I suppose you do adapt to the situation you’re put in. But I think it is tough going, the way they’re trying to condense the season down. It’s obviously a long way down the road. It’s not for a few more seasons but trying to condense the season down just to make it a global calendar . . .”

And there lies the crux, players being asked to make more sacrifices for the World Rugby view of a global calendar. Sexton sees merit in that and a way of ironing out some of the problems but not at the expense of the health of the players.

“I think the global calendar is a good idea,” he says. “But it’s important that the both hemispheres compromise in the same way.

“I only played three games in four weeks [this year]. That was tough going. It was the three of the toughest, France, England and Wales. Wales being away as well, which is always a crazy intense game. You come out of it . . . you need that week before the quarter-final just to be mentally and physically ready to go again.”

Connacht this week, Europe the next, playoffs maybe, a European final maybe and Lions tour or tour to Japan maybe. It’s not slowing.

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