Sexton warning signs getting too hard to ignore
After 38 games in just over 300 days, jaded star needs back-up men to step up, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
ON Monday, the IRFU were so confident that there was no problem with Jonathan Sexton that they left him off their injury bulletin entirely.
By yesterday, Racing Metro were ruling him out for 10 days to six weeks, a remarkably broad time-frame for an injury.
The Union weighed back in with a more positive briefing, emphasising that they are hopeful the fly-half will be fit for the clash with Italy tomorrow week but, wherever the truth lies, what is clear is that Ireland's need to develop cover for their Lions star remains a top priority 12 months on from the Six Nations going pear-shaped after the Dubliner went down with a hamstring injury.
Since being forced off against England last February, Sexton has managed six games at the end of Leinster's season, 15 league matches for Racing Metro and a further five in Europe, plus seven games for the Lions, including all three Tests as a starter.
On top of that, he played twice for Ireland in November, before starting the first three Six Nations games, damaging the ligaments in his thumb against England. That's 38 games, albeit not all as a starter, in just over 300 days.
A hip flexor injury kept him out of the initial autumn game against Samoa, with coach Joe Schmidt later confirming that he could have risked his fly-half for a more pivotal game, but felt a weekend in Kerry would be more beneficial given his unforgiving schedule.
The irony of the situation is that Sexton's last three injuries appear to have occurred on international duty.
While it all got a little unseemly between club and country yesterday as one update flew in the face of the other, the fact remains that the out-half is the man Ireland can least afford to get injured.
Schmidt has already bemoaned the lack of access to his first-choice pivot – who has returned to Paris on both down weeks during the Six Nations campaign – and Paddy Jackson ran at No 10 during yesterday's open session at Newforge outside Belfast. The Ulster out-half is next in line for the jersey should Sexton not make it back.
With a 32-day gap between the parameters of Racing coach Laurent Labit's 10 days-six week prognosis, there is plenty of room for manoeuvre and one wonders whether the club have grown tired of the continued protestations coming out of Carton House at their use of an asset they are paying top dollar to employ.
What is definite is that Sexton will not play against Castres this weekend, but the Union expect him to report for duty on Monday as usual.
Schmidt said on Tuesday that the real risk to Sexton's involvement against Italy would be an aggravation suffered while playing in the Top 14, but a further week off could be in order to ensure his fitness for Paris and to give Jackson a decent stretch in the jersey.
Certainly, the Ulster fly-half did little wrong in his previous start, running the game well against Samoa in the comprehensive win back in November.
Having entered the season behind Ian Madigan, who started both Tests on last summer's North American tour, the 22-year-old has benefited from the faith of Ulster coach Mark Anscombe and has started all of the province's big games this season.
The drawback is that Ruan Pienaar has taken the kicks at goal in most of those must-win outings, with Anscombe reasoning that his Springbok scrum-half needs to take all of the efforts if he is to be in a position to nail the ones from long range that have become his calling card and one of Ulster's most devastating weapons in tight affairs.
That has undermined Jackson's claim and his goal-kicking has clearly suffered. He looked shorn of all confidence in that department last spring when Declan Kidney surprisingly picked him over Ronan O'Gara for the Scotland, France and Italy games, while his Pro12 success ratio of 64pc this season is not a ringing endorsement.
Madigan, in contrast, is fourth in the Golden Boot standings with a success rate of 85pc in the domestic league, but he cannot shift Jimmy Gopperth from the No 10 jersey at Leinster and his lack of game time is working against him.
Schmidt knows all about Gopperth's talents, having convinced his former New Zealand Schools fly-half to come from Newcastle Falcons and replace Sexton, but now the presence of the imports is hindering his options.
With Sexton having moved beyond their control, Ireland have already been forced to rest their fly-half for one of the 10 Tests this season, and the scenario could repeat itself next week.
The wear and tear has affected the Dubliner in both of the one-score defeats the team have suffered under Schmidt, with Sexton struggling with his hip as he sent what could have been the winning kick wide against the All Blacks and performing well below his best after suffering his thumb injury at Twickenham.
While Madigan was readying himself to come on against New Zealand as the kick sailed wide and was introduced soon after, Jackson wasn't brought on against England until the 80th minute and, at that, he replaced Brian O'Driscoll and played on the wing.
Whether Sexton makes it back for next weekend or not, it is clear that both understudies will need game time to develop; the solution could come next summer when Schmidt could leave his first choice at home for the tour to Argentina in order to give him some much-needed rest, while offering those next in line some much-needed experience.
First, however, there is a Six Nations to be won and Schmidt is not of a mind to make changes unless strictly necessary.
He has suggested that Sexton could sit out Italy if needed, but as he misses Racing's game this weekend, it heightens the prospect that he will be pressed into action on Saturday week regardless of his problems.
With his club and country at odds on his fitness, this will be worth watching with interest and it would be no surprise to see Jackson handed the kicking duties for Ulster against the Dragons tonight.
It remains something of a quick fix; Ireland need a legitimate challenger to emerge from the shadows and put pressure on Sexton and they need it to happen quickly, with the World Cup looming.
Otherwise, the novenas being said around Carton House for the health of one man's thumb will become a regular occurrence and that is a precarious place to be.
February 10, 2013: Tears hamstring while playing for Ireland against England
April 21: Returns for Leinster and plays the last six games of the season, winning the Pro12 and Challenge Cup.
July 7: Scores a try as the Lions defeat Australia in third Test to claim Series.
August 8: After getting married and enjoying a short holiday, Sexton makes his Racing debut in a pre-season friendly.
November 9: Plays 13 games in the opening 13 weeks and turns up at Ireland training "flat," according to Joe Schmidt. Strains hip flexor during kicking practice and is left out of the side to face Samoa.
November 16: Returns for the defeats to Australia and New Zealand, missing the kick that could have secured victory over the All Blacks.
February 24, 2014: Damages his thumb in the second half of defeat to England. The injury appears to affect him as he gives an under-par performance.
Saturday: Receives treatment early in the second half of the defeat to England. No mention is made of the injury in the post-match interviews.
Monday: The IRFU issue an injury briefing which outlines knocks to Brian O'Driscoll and Peter O'Mahony, but does not mention Sexton, saying: "No other player sustained any injury of note." Sexton returns to France.
Tuesday: Schmidt confirms that Sexton damaged his thumb, but says he is confident the player will be available to face Italy on Saturday week.
Wednesday: Racing coach Ronan O'Gara suggests the injury is more serious than the IRFU are saying.
Yesterday, 4.30: Racing say Sexton has damaged ligaments in his thumb and could be out for 10 days to six weeks.
Yesterday, 6.30: The IRFU release a fresh bulletin claiming Sexton will make the Italy game if "he continues his current rate of improvement."