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Thursday 19 July 2018

Black and bleu... but Johnny keeps his cool head

We were all very worried about Johnny. His poor oul noggin had taken a right battering last year, and after Ireland's fearless fly-half got two bad knocks in the autumn series match against Australia, he was sidelined for 12 weeks with concussion.

But in the nick of time, Sexto was back in green to face France on Saturday. He was mighty in this fixture in Paris in last year's Six Nations, scoring two tries and 17 points which propelled Ireland to Championship victory.

Yet we were worried as, in the run-up to this weekend, the French let it be known they'd be targeting Johnny and his mended head. That wouldn't do. We've needed someone to love since Brian O'Driscoll left us. Of course, we're all mad about Paul O'Connell, but we're too scared to get swoony around him, for fear we'd get one of those death-stares and the barked command to cop ourselves on.

So all anxious eyes were on the Number 10. And sure enough, the man-mountain that is Matthieu Bastareaud took a run at him at the earliest opportunity. As the match unfolded, it was clear this was a contest of power and bulk rather than grace, pace and passing.

At 12 minutes in, Ireland got their first penalty, a tricky kick, not helped by a few noisy visiting supporters trying to put Johnny off. "SHHHH!" hushed the Irish crowd like cross librarians.

Three-nil. Nerves settled a little in the stands. It wasn't a pretty match for any Valentine's Day romantics in the crowd. Precious little flowing rugby (the 25 penalties doled out by ref Wayne Barnes didn't help) and heaps of big hits by blue-shirted brick out-houses.

The Irish were up for it, though. Tommy Bowe leapt like a sleek salmon, Sean O'Brien, also back from the wars, was unshakeable. Simon Zebo openly pined for some attacking ball. No tries for Ireland, but Sexto split the posts four times, cool as the breeze whipping through the stadium.

Then early in the second half, the dreaded thing happened. An audible wince rose from all sides when the big screen replayed the clash of heads between Sexton and Bastareaud. Both went down like skittles, both went off to be stitched, blood trickling down Johnny's face. It didn't look good. Ian Madigan came on, and soon put another three points on the board.

There was a cheer when the number 10 trotted back on to the pitch, bloodied but unbowed. He added a fifth penalty kick but by then Jamie Heaslip had left the field, grimacing in pain after receiving a vicious knee in his back from Pascal Papé.

The last quarter was pure war on the field and hell to watch from the seats. The French had brought on a new front row, men so gigantic that when they lumbered on to the pitch, pints of beer vibrated in the stands.

In the last few minutes, Paul O'Connell was everywhere, tackling, marshalling his battered troops. He threw his arms in the air when the final whistle went. Victory is victory, however unpoetic. Especially against the French, unbeatable for so many seasons.

Johnny headed over to his hulking nemesis. "I asked him, 'why always me?'" he grinned. But what about the horrible head-bang? "It was only a glancing blow," he shrugged, all 14 stone 6 pounds of him. Bastareaud's almost 20 stone.

Less than an hour after the whistle, the Irish manager and captain were showered, suited and speaking to the media. Paul O'Connell exuded the calm air of a man who had spent his afternoon walking the dog and enjoying brunch over the papers.

The captain said he was "delighted" with the win, but had found the game "frustrating". He added, "the review from this game is going to be quite tough".

Joe Schmidt was quietly upbeat. He reassured the media that Johnny was grand, and when the team medic wanted to check him for concussion when he came off, "Johnny stated giving out to the doc", he explained. "The doc knew he was his real self when he did that, because that's the way he is."

So he returned to the fray, sporting a few stitches and a shiner. Nonetheless, there were sore and bruised bodies at the post-match dinner in the Shelbourne Hotel. Not so much black tie, as black eye.

England next, in a fortnight's time. Johnny's gone back to Racing Metro who play Clermont next weekend. If they harm a hair on his head, they'll have us to answer to, even the boys as big as Bastareaud.

Focus shifts to England as Ireland eye slam - Sport: 2-10

Irish Independent

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