Sport Six Nations

Saturday 10 December 2016

'Johnny Sexton has started 22 games and finished just three - Something needs to change'

Worrying trend as out-half and playmaker has only finished a handful of Ireland games since Joe Schmidt took the reins

Published 20/02/2016 | 00:00

Johnny Sexton is sandwiched between France’s Damien Chouly and Alexandre Flanquart during Saturday’s Six Nation’s clash at the Stade de France. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton is sandwiched between France’s Damien Chouly and Alexandre Flanquart during Saturday’s Six Nation’s clash at the Stade de France. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton (SPORTSFILE)

Ireland are more reliant than ever on Jonathan Sexton, yet regularly when they need him most he is no longer on the pitch.

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The sight of the out-half going off as the endgame of big Test matches approaches has been a regular one during Joe Schmidt's time in charge and frequently he is accompanied by a medic as he departs.

At different times it has been different things that have forced him off. No one in this Six Nations will play under as much scrutiny as Sexton who has seen back-page stories declaring his imminent retirement and endured concerned pundits wondering about his long-term well-being as a result of his being stood down as a result of concussions in 2014.

Team-mates have spoken about people on the street coming up to them asking 'how's Johnny?' as fans worry about his health and, while all the attention is unwanted for a player who has another three seasons to go on his current contract and is a key part of the IRFU's plans for the 2019 World Cup, there is a genuine concern behind the headlines.

As Joe Schmidt has repeatedly said, the player has been cleared to play by top neurosurgeons and has not suffered a concussion since he didn't play for 12 weeks on the advice of French medic Dr Jean-François Cherman before last year's Six Nations.

Nobody is more aware of the risks than the player himself and he and Schmidt have been clear about the level of medical care he has received.

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton

Having been cleared to play, however, the most important man in the Ireland team who has not finished 19 out of the last 22 Test matches he has started.

Since he moved to Racing 92 in 2013, the out-half has missed two matches through injury and sitting out five others to get a rest. In half of the 22 games he started, he has been forced to leave as a result of injury or cramp.

In November 2013, he went off against Australia and New Zealand with a hamstring problem, while he suffered concussion in the final 2014 Six Nations game against France.

He went off with what Schmidt described as "knee cramp" against Argentina at the end of his most arduous season that June and a week later suffered another concussion in the second Test. Having endured another head injury while playing for Racing, he then suffered his fourth concussion in 2014 against Australia.

Recovered

That led to him being stood down for three months, returning for last year's Six Nations. He came through the France match, but was then forced off with a hamstring injury against England. He recovered in time to play in the final two games. In the World Cup warm-ups, cramp again claimed him against England before his adductor went against France and ruled him out of the Argentina game.

Johnny Sexton after suffering a head injury with Ireland
Johnny Sexton after suffering a head injury with Ireland

In this Six Nations, he has missed two endgames as a result of a neck problem he suffered when tackling George North in the opening game against Wales. That finished in a draw. Last week Ireland lost to France by a point; what difference might Sexton have made had he been on the pitch?

Read more here:

Despite being forced off so frequently, Sexton has frequently displayed courage and healing skills to be able to pitch up and play a week or two later. So often, the build-up to big games has centred around his participation in training and availability and, almost every time, he makes it.

The most crushing blow was his absence from the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina as a result of the muscle he strained a week earlier against France. Ireland did everything to have their main man fit, but he was pulled at the 11th hour.

Johnny Sexton rolled an ankle in training today
Johnny Sexton rolled an ankle in training today

His inability to finish games and record of head injuries have led to a widespread discussion about his well-being, with his tackle technique in particular being called widely into question. Keith Wood is one of those who would rather see the excellent defender cede some of his natural advantage in order to get through games.

"Johnny has a duty of care to himself," the former Ireland captain said on Newstalk this week.

"At some stage, he's going to have to be told to tackle lower. I don't care that he's one of the better guys with a choke tackle, I don't want him to do it because he is opening himself to getting clobbered.

"Let him soak the tackle ... whatever it is. I'd rather have him on the field a lot longer and the fact is: he isn't, he's going off in all of the matches."

The calls for Sexton to change how he addresses the tackle have also come from former team-mates, with Shane Horgan criticising his technique and Brian O'Driscoll joining the debate in recent weeks arguing he should change his ways.

However, Sexton himself reckons that tackling low is not a solution to all of his ills. His physicality is one of the things that has made him such an accomplished all-round out-half and he doesn't believe that going lower would necessarily reduce his injuries.

"I've tried to mix it up a bit more. A lot of the time if you can tackle the ball it slows down the ruck for the opposition on the next phase," he said during last year's World Cup.

"A chop tackle is very effective when you've got good poachers around you ... I'm happy enough with my defence. It was spoken about last year when I came back from a couple of head knocks that I need to tackle lower, but your head is just as exposed when you go low as it is when you go high.

"When you go high, you'd expect the referees to keep an eye out for leading elbows or leading heads, and I think it's up to the referees to look after that rather than me having to worry about it."

That referees could help the out-half's case is unquestionable. Last weekend, he was clearly targeted by the French and not for the first time.

Figures released this week documenting the level of injuries per position in the Top 14 show that No 10s perhaps unsurprisingly suffer more concussions than any other player.

Read more here:

Another suggestion that has come from outside the camp is to keep Sexton out of trouble and we have seen Ireland's back-row defend the No 10 channel at times off first phase against Wales.

On second phase and beyond, Sexton often 'bounces out' of the line and stays in the wide channels as part of the defensive system.

Skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy has argued that in international rugby there can be no hiding.

"He is playing in the pivotal role and he has to be in a situation where has to be able to make those decisions, but if you have a guy that is trying to look after himself in international rugby then we would be in serious trouble, especially in that channel," he said.

"It is something that Johnny is aware of and we are aware of. It is not a case of changing that much.

Targeted

"He gets targeted a lot off first-phase ball. Big guys are running down those channels. Sometimes you need to go low and chop, but sometimes if you go low, you get run over anyway. So it's just a matter of picking the right tackle type for the particular situation."

For the players, it is not simply about changing the way one tackles, as Rob Kearney explained.

"You can't predetermine the type of tackle you want to make, it's just depending on the situation, your footwork, the point of entry, time and ultimately you just need to stop them," the full-back said. "In that moment, you'll do whatever you have to do. It's too much of a perfect world to say 'I'm going to tackle like this'."

The tackle is only one facet of the injuries Sexton has suffered. Going on tour with the Lions and transferring to France meant he barely had a break between 2012 and 2014 and that took a toll.

During his early days in Paris with Racing 92, Schmidt would publicly worry about the effect playing so many games would have on his key man and even after they have gotten the out-half back into the Irish system, his injury troubles have followed him.

At 6ft 1ins and 14-and-a-half stone, Sexton can look after himself on most occasions but the frequency with which he is being asked to make hits is something that could possibly be addressed.

So far in this year's Six Nations, he has made more than double the number of tackles than any other out-half in the competition and, while Wales do ask their No 10s to defend, he has two more than Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland combined.

It has to be asked if it is in Ireland's best interests to have him involved so much on defensive side of the game when he is missing the clutch moments at the end.

Given his importance to the team, keeping a healthy Sexton on for as long as possible must surely be a priority for Schmidt as he faces another week of questions about his out-half's fitness ahead of next week's game against England at Twickenham.

Clearly, something needs to change.

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