Saturday 21 October 2017

Alan Quinlan: Idea of Sexton taking six months out is ludicrous - he needs a slice of luck, not a sabbatical

Idea of out-half taking six months out is ludicrous - and it won't happen, because there's no way he or Schmidt want it to happen

The last thing a player as driven and talented as Johnny Sexton needs is time off. Photo: Sportsfile
The last thing a player as driven and talented as Johnny Sexton needs is time off. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Johnny Sexton crouched over Ronan O'Gara and screamed in his face. "Cheeky b*****d," I thought when I saw the photograph. This was a few days later, by which stage we'd been hammered out the gate, and Munster's Heineken Cup dream - and my Lions dream - had been shattered into a million tiny pieces.

The idea of exacting revenge on this young fella who had had a pop at one of my best mates simply never entered my head because there were other more pressing things on my mind. In any case, I liked Johnny, or more to the point, I liked the two sides to him.

Personality No 1 is the Johnny Sexton I first met in 2008 in the Ireland team hotel. He was polite, laid back, quiet in himself, witty and friendly.

"How are ya, Alan?" he said, stretching out his hand to formally introduce himself. There were no airs of graces about him - the type of bloke I like.

Narky

But personality No 2 is also the type of player I like. We're on the training field now. And this polite, mannerly young fella has turned into a different person. I look across and see this edgy, fiery bloke issuing these narky instructions and I subconsciously nod in approval.

In the team hotel, he's reserved. In team training, he's opinionated. And in Croke Park in May 2009 he allows emotion and frustration spill out of him when Gordon D'Arcy scores a well-worked try and ROG falls to the ground trying to tackle him.

He'd insulted ROG, and ROG was a friend. Yet as a group, we never discussed it at Munster, never said to one another "we have to get Johnny Sexton back for what he did to ROG".

If I'd seen it on the day, I would have wanted to kill him, but the heat of battle and the lobby of a hotel are two vastly different environments. And this was where I was the next time I saw him, when Johnny came straight up to me and said "sorry you missed out with the Lions, Quinny". There and then I remembered why I always liked him.

And part of the reason I have time for him is because of that crankiness. He has never been a b****x for the sake of it, but in a desire to win, the rules of polite society often disappear.

And that variation within a player's personality has always intrigued me, how a calm fella off the field can turn into a different animal on it.

Maybe I write this as justification for my own temper issues during my career. In the middle of big matches, I was often in psycho mode. Sexton, too, has fight in him.

He can be demanding of others but is even harder on himself. With Johnny, there was always this sense that he was chasing perfection. And if it didn't arrive, he'd be inclined to beat himself up.

Any time I played against him, or was in the same squad as him, his desire to win was unbelievable.

So when you bear all this in mind, there is absolutely no way on God's earth that Johnny Sexton will happily put his hand in the air and volunteer to take time out of the game. It just won't happen.

In any case, I'm not convinced that was what Joe Schmidt meant when he said Sexton needs "a window of time to really make sure he can be more robust".

It isn't a sabbatical - a la Richie McCaw in 2013, when the New Zealander took time out to help his body recover from the relentless strain of Super Rugby and Test matches - that Joe has on his mind. He simply wants his playmaker to get his recovery right.

Ambition

In any case, Sexton isn't the type who'd want a break. His ambition will be to line out for Leinster in the Champions Cup, for Ireland in the Six Nations, for the Lions in New Zealand.

A break?

Give me one.

We're all perfectly aware that Sexton has had a number of injuries - in particular since the 2013 Lions tour. He missed the Ireland tour to South Africa because of a shoulder injury. Two years ago, he was stood down for three months because of a recurring concussion problem.

But this is different. I've yet to qualify as a doctor, but over the years I have figured one thing out: your shoulder and your head are located in a different part of your body to your hamstrings.

Johnny tweaked his hamstring, initially, in training with Leinster nearly two months ago and probably came back a little soon, although that was understandable given the allure of the November fixtures.

He's in rehabilitation now - and will not return until the medical staff at Leinster and Ireland deliver the opinion that he is fit and well.

So I don't see a major drama here but understandably Leo Cullen will want one of his top players back on the park as soon as possible, whereas Schmidt's preference would be for Sexton to get extra rehab time.

But there is no way the New Zealander would want Sexton to put his feet up and not play any rugby between now and February 4, when the Six Nations campaign begins in Edinburgh.

If I was Schmidt, I would want my out-half having a run of three or four matches and then getting a weekend off.

Most of all, though, Schmidt will want Sexton to be patient and to get his hamstring right. He'll want him to play Champions Cup rugby for Leinster - but only on the basis that he is fully recovered from this injury, not if a danger remains of him aggravating the problem and being out for three months.

The Ireland coach is an intelligent man, and will be fully aware of the benefits of Sexton being involved in key Champions Cup games.

He'll have looked at Sexton's injury profile and also at the fact that he hasn't played too many games this season and know he has not been overloaded with matches.

A sabbatical isn't the answer. A slice of good luck is.

Sexton has not been blessed with too much fortune since the last Lions tour.

The head, the shoulder, the neck and the calf have been hurt at different stages. But still, whenever fit, he has clocked in for work, making 21 starts in the 2013-14 season, 13 the following year and 14 last season.

From experience, I have a fair idea of what he'll be going through as he finalises his rehab.

When he is in the company of physios, he'll be positive and upbeat, believing he's one step closer to the comeback date.

However any player who has an injury - minor or serious - will always has some doubt or frustration in his head. All he wants is to get back out on the field and get a run of games.

Time off? That is the last thing a player as driven and as talented as Sexton would want.

Irish Independent

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