Cian Tracey: Sexton confusion reigns as Schmidt changes his tune
Published 29/11/2016 | 02:30
Just as his press conference was drawing to a close after the All Blacks defeat, a final question was put to Joe Schmidt about whether there was a need for Johnny Sexton to take a prolonged period out of the game to allow his body to recover.
The emphatic response that followed left little doubt about Schmidt's feelings on such a suggestion, but exactly a week later, the Kiwi changed his tune.
When the idea was initially put to the Kiwi, his feelings on the matter were so clear, it seemed like a complete non-runner.
"It's his other hamstring so it's not the previously injured hamstring. It was the other one," Schmidt explained at the time.
"I think having time out of the game won't necessarily solve that. It's just one of those unfortunate things. It was disappointing to lose him but I don't think putting him out of the game for a prolonged period is a solution."
A week later, after Ireland's win over Australia, Schmidt re-addressed the issue on his own accord. The question was put to him:
"Johnny and Robbie (Henshaw), are they short-term or long-term (injuries), do you know at this stage?"
After providing an update on Henshaw's fitness, Schmidt went on to say: "With Johnny, I got asked last week does he need a window of time to really make sure that he can be more robust, and that's one of the things that comes up for discussion now that this window is over.
"So some of those discussions will take place and we'll have a clearer picture after that."
At the moment, that picture remains very unclear.
Leinster believe that the out-half could be fit enough to play against Northampton in two weeks, but that is dependent on the discussions that are due to take place between the medical staff, the IRFU and Leinster.
Sexton injured his left hamstring in the build-up to Leinster's win over Castres last month and picked up a fresh problem to his right hamstring in the defeat to the All Blacks two weeks ago.
The fact remains that Sexton is contracted by the IRFU, and when Leinster were asked yesterday if Schmidt could overrule the province's decision, backs coach Girvan Dempsey said: "Potentially. There will be discussions. I think ultimately that's what it has to be. It has to be making sure what's in the best interest for Johnny, because you don't want Johnny to be playing through injury and stuff like that.
"You want to get to the crux of it and find out what exactly is causing it, and currently we have devised, in conjunction with the IRFU, a rehab program to resolve that issue that he has, because we want to make sure he is fit and healthy and playing for us.
"I think it (final decision) has to be the medical staff because they will have all the relevant scans, the relevant data, the relevant information to hand.
"We're hopeful he will make good progress in that and that he will be back fairly soon.
"If you're fit, any player would want to play. That's what you do. You want to play in big games and you want to play rugby, at the end of the day, because that's what you love and that's what you're employed to do."
Sexton has made no secret of his frustration when his fitness is constantly in the spotlight but he has started just six games for club and country this season and has finished just one of those.
While he was available for selection for all five of Ireland's Six Nations games earlier this year, he missed the summer tour to South Africa because of a shoulder problem, which is what made Schmidt's "to really make sure that he can be more robust" suggestion all the more interesting.
While it is highly unlikely that Sexton will take a long-term sabbatical out of the game, it was certainly curious to hear Schmidt raise the subject on his own volition last Saturday.
"I feel like I am 100pc fit, and looking forward to a big few weeks ahead," Sexton said in the build-up to the win over the All Blacks in Chicago before breaking down again against the Wallabies.
Schmidt is understandably eager to protect his most prized asset but he doesn't need his out-half until February 4 for Ireland's first Six Nations game against Scotland.
Leinster, on the other hand, are entering a crucial part of the season as their European campaign largely hinges on the upcoming double header against Northampton.
Schmidt is more open to the idea of Sexton taking time out to fully recover than he was a week ago but until the 'discussion' takes place and Leinster are told otherwise, they expect him to line out against Northampton in two weeks time.