Saturday 21 April 2018

'I've been stuck with this stigma of concussion being attached to me' - Sexton denies he is prone to head injuries

Sexton takes blame for confusion over Schmidt’s comments

‘I have had plenty of bangs on the head but I’ve probably had two or three concussions,’ said Johnny Sexton before yesterday’s training session in Donnybrook. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
‘I have had plenty of bangs on the head but I’ve probably had two or three concussions,’ said Johnny Sexton before yesterday’s training session in Donnybrook. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Jonathan Sexton knows the drill by now.

The reluctant poster boy for all that we know - and the much more that we don't - about concussion is primed for the questions.

That he remains, patiently and willingly, prepared to answer the new queries, as well as some of the old ones, says a lot for him.

Then again, he has skin - and his head - in the game. This is his well-being. His living. His life.

Sexton's health and well-being continues to arouse as much interest as his status as the world's (second) best out-half.

Keith Wood and Brian O'Driscoll continue to hope, in vain, that he may try to amend the tackle technique that, once more, saw him depart prematurely against Exeter in the RDS before Christmas.

And, whether he has been concussed or not - and, with so many doctors differing on the subject, who can possibly tell? - the fact that the nature of his latest head injury can cause confusion on prime-time RTé television hardly helps matters.

The player admits culpability for leading Joe Schmidt, and the Irish public, astray from the podium of the RTé Sports Awards in December, before official clarification that Sexton passed some of the elements of his HIA, but did not pass others, itself arguably a stunning declaration that the sport's deployment of the HIA is palpably struggling to maintain credibility.

"I can take part of the blame for that," he says of the confusion that arose when Schmidt seemed to gainsay Leinster coach Leo Cullen, "because I spoke with Joe after the game and told him that I was fine, that I was a bit shook by the initial contact but that I passed all my questions, which was true, but we thought it was best not to go back on the pitch because of how I felt on the pitch.

"That was why I failed my HIA. I failed my HIA before I probably started it. Even if you decide you're not going back onto the pitch you still have to do your HIA straight away to see where you are. So, the decision was probably made even by how I reacted to the tackle.

"It wasn't that bad but I just got it on the soft part of my head. Was I concussed? No, probably not but was it the right decision not to put me back out? Probably, yeah, because I was probably startled by the collision."

Given his well-publicised difficulties during 2014 when, while playing in France, he was stood down for three months because of concussion, he is asked did he feel any sense of deja vu.

"What happened in France was very precautionary. I don't know how many times I have to talk about this. I picked up three mildish... sorry, one bad one and two mild knocks and this guy says: 'Look, you've had a few knocks to the head over the course of a few months and normally the protocol is that you take some time off.'

"He said: 'I recommend that you do that.' They have signed up in France that this doctor makes all the calls. So, look, I argued it tooth and nail. I didn't want to take the 12 weeks off.

"I'd rather have just a couple of weeks off because I was actually fine after two or three weeks and I suppose I've been stuck with this stigma of concussion being attached to me when I have probably had maybe two or three ever in my career.

"Like, I have had plenty of bangs on the head but I've probably had two or three concussions. But you talk about me in concussion and it goes hand in hand. It is very frustrating for me because it's not true and also because we've got insurance companies we've got to talk to that don't believe that I don't get concussions. It can be pretty tricky.

"It's not ideal but I know the truth and the doctors that work with me know the truth and that's the main thing.

"But the way that sometimes … even the way that it was reported … it was obviously my fault that I had told Joe that I had passed the questions, which I did, but the HIA was failed before it started so that's where the mix-up came.

"We should start maybe looking at how good it was the doctors didn't put Johnny back out there because they thought he might have had a concussion. As it transpired, I passed stages two and three of the HIA, you don't have concussion and off you go again."

But, you wonder, how does he know? How does anyone know?

"It's very hard. Think back a few years ago that maybe was the case, but now, it's very hard, even with Tadhg Furlong at the weekend.

"Initially he was ok, then they said, 'This guy might not be right', but he's perfect today. They just thought even if he's potentially got one, he's off. They're looking after us better than they ever have.

"Are there times people are knocked down, get back up and play on? Of course there is. One of my worst ones ever was about ten years ago.

"It was probably my only really bad one. I made the tackle, got up and literally no one would have known. But the guys beside me knew, I was calling calls that didn't exist, and I'm arguing they were right!

"It is an uncertain thing, but we're being looked after better and better, and it's getting harder and harder to hide it. We're being educated that you can't hide it. It's harder to get away from the doctors."

Yet the fact that so many doctors, some of whom once worked within the sport but left aghast at how the issue is treated, differ so violently on this still utterly unfathomable subject raises its own alarms.

"Exactly, doctors have left because of the HIA, but you kind of think, 'What would we do if there wasn't a HIA?' Know what I mean? I think rugby's getting better and better at it, as are the players."

It remains, though, largely in the realm of the unknown, as he concedes.

The other constant in the debate - particularly amongst former players turned pundits - is the manner in which he seems to propel himself into perilous situations.

So, again, you ask him about his tackling technique - he prefers to go high, rather than low, more often than not.

"It's not foolproof, if you go low you can get a bang in the head. I saw one over the weekend, a guy goes low and gets a knee in the head.

"I don't buy it fully in terms of going high can cause… I've been criticised before for my defence, as a young guy, it wasn't up to scratch, I tried to improve it. Could I go low?

"I've gone low before, but often in that channel it's about trying to stop the ball and I'm a tall guy so I don't generally have a great position when I go low."

He may only know one way to operate and who can truly contradict one of the world's best players.

It remains the responsibility of his sport to change, not him.

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