Tuesday 27 September 2016

All eyes are on Sexton as Jones crosses the line

Published 26/02/2016 | 02:30

Johnny Sexton arrives for training at Carton House yesterday (SPORTSFILE)
Johnny Sexton arrives for training at Carton House yesterday (SPORTSFILE)

Perhaps the lack of response from Carton House irked Eddie Jones. Privately, Ireland have been annoyed by the steady stream of insults that have crossed the Irish Sea, but publicly the Australian has not gotten the response he desired.

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So, yesterday, he decided that a kick below the belt was needed. Ireland still didn't react, but you can be sure that the England coach's decision to bring Johnny Sexton's parents into the equation will have been an angry topic of conversation on the team bus as it headed for Dublin Airport yesterday.

Jones wasn't asked about Sexton's health at his team announcement yesterday, he brought the out-half up himself.

Asked to offer an opinion on tomorrow's opponents, the former Japan supremo gave a stock answer about Joe Schmidt's side being the European benchmark, before seguing into expressing his concerns for the opposition No 10 in a style that is almost certainly unprecedented for an opposition coach.

"Sexton is an interesting one," he said. "They've talked about him having whiplash injury which is not a great thing to talk about. I'm sure his mother and father would be worried about that. Hopefully, the lad's alright on Saturday to play."

Having dropped the incendiary quote, Jones was then affronted to be questioned further on the issue.

Asked if his side would target Sexton, he replied: "We target players all the time … that's part of rugby is it not?" Pressed on whether it would be legitimate, he said: "I didn't know teams had any special requirements. Is there some sort of special law is there?"

He wasn't getting off the hook as the journalists asked the same question again, with the coach replying: "Well, there's 15 players out there? Are we supposed to not run at one player? 'Hang on, hang on he's got a red dot on his head, we don't run at him'."

Exasperated

The coach then got increasingly exasperated, rubbishing a query on whether going after the No 10 was a legitimate tactic or engage with the journalists on the regular jibes he's aimed in Ireland's direction, before then coming back to the topic one last time.

"Sorry can I just go back to that Sexton question," he said. "I think that's a really stupid question. Rugby's a game of 15 players on the field.

"When we're attacking, we're attacking weak defender ... why would we run at the strongest defender, their strongest defenders? We'll always run at their weakest. I'm not saying Sexton is a weak defender, maybe France did. We're going to be targeting players in the Ireland side.

"We want to win and you win a game of rugby by attacking their weak points and to say that's unfair is just ridiculous."

It was a remarkable exchange and, given the debate that is raging about concussion and injury levels in rugby, seemed incredibly irresponsible on Jones' part.

It will undoubtedly heap more focus and pressure on Sexton who will look to silence this particular doubter on the biggest stage of all.

He doesn't like it, but the out-half has had to get used to people speculating about his health since he was stood down for 12 weeks before last year's Six Nations as a result of suffering four concussions.

He has been taken off injured in half of Ireland's matches since the 2013 Lions tour and left the field of play with what Schmidt described as a "whiplash-style" injury in the first two games of this campaign. Jones' remarks emerged just before Ireland held their own team announcement and neither Schmidt or Sexton had heard the comments before they faced the cameras.

"The thing that any scaremongering or any criticism does, is that players have families, friends and that network tends to ripple out into the community," Schmidt said when asked if he felt Jones' comments were irresponsible.

"It's never great, because I think then that inevitably does rebound into the (team) environment and can cause a little bit of anxiety for the player; nothing to do with how fit and able they are, but just that other people are worried about them. Maybe that's a distraction that can start to hamper preparation. I'd like to think that's not the case."

For Sexton, who simply wants to move on, it was an unwanted topic of conversation. Try as he might to avoid it, the out-half's injury record keeps coming up for discussion but for an opposition coach to question the safety of his playing was a new one on him.

Bandwagon

"Well, parents are pretty concerned for their kids I think if they love them," he said. "Maybe he's just trying to jump on the bandwagon about head injuries, it's a hot topic. I've kind of been branded with it a little bit, because I've taken a break previously, but that break was very much a precaution to prevent me having any problems in the future. That worked and there haven't been any problems."

Having had his say in his press conference, Jones returned to the topic when sitting with the daily newspaper journalists.

"I'd just be worried about his welfare," he reflected. "If you're saying a guy has got whiplash then he's had a severe trauma. Maybe they used the wrong term, but if you've had severe trauma then you've got to worry about the welfare of the player.

"The only thing I've suggested is that if they say he's had whiplash injuries, then I'd be worried about him. We've got the best medical staff in England, and we'll make the best decision for the player. I'm sure Ireland have done the same."

As for targeting the No 10 channel, Jones was not for turning.

"That question was absolutely ridiculous because it's suggesting that you are doing something that's not in the spirit of the game," he said. "It's been happening since Adam and Eve were around. To say, 'Is that a legitimate tactic?' is absolutely ridiculous. You think they're not going to send (Robbie) Henshaw at George Ford at the weekend? Give me a break."

Sexton will look to have the last laugh tomorrow after his health was brought into the equation by the opposition coach. Jones may be looking to unsettle Ireland's playmaker, but the comments could easily backfire.

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