Des Berry: 'Ireland players need to step up and protect Johnny Sexton if refs won't'
Donncha O’Callaghan felt like he spent his whole career looking after his “sister” – Ronan O’Gara.
When Ireland were on the brink of the 2009 Grand Slam, they ventured into Wales intent on respecting the laws of the game as long as they didn’t get in the way of the unwritten rules.
“I knew they’d have a huge price on ROG’s head,” he contributed in Alan English’s book Grand Slam.
“I know Ryan Jones from the Lions - a real nice guy, no malice in him at all.
“When I saw him doing it in the first minute I thought: ‘If Ryan Jones is thinking of giving ROG a belt, imagine the way the rest of them are thinking’.
“I probably shouldn’t have got involved that early on, but I wanted to let him know that I knew what they were at - and they weren’t getting away with it.
“Playing with ROG is like playing with your sister - you have to mind him.”
Is it time for Ireland to roll back the years and take the gloves off?
International Rugby Newsletter
There are those outside this island who could be tempted to label Ireland as ‘whingers’ for the way coaches and commentators always talk about the punishment international opponents dish out to Jonathan Sexton.
It is not that he gets hit. It is how and when he gets hit.
There are never those headlines about the targeting of Owen Farrell, Finn Russell or Dan Biggar; or even Beauden Barrett.
Why is it always Sexton?
For a start, it happened long before the World Player of the Year in November. The common sense answer is that the out-half is more critical to how Ireland play than any other ‘10’ is to any other country.
Now, Joe Schmidt has been in obsessive pursuit of making Ireland the most disciplined nation in world rugby.
Somewhere along the way, this has even stretched into allowing Ireland’s best player to be regularly targeted without recrimination or retribution.
Until now, it has always been left to the officials to sort it out.
If referees won’t sort it out, then someone else has to.
When England turned up at the Aviva last month and turned up the physicality, Ireland had no answer.
They did not have the energy or the ‘dog mentality’ to do what had to be done.
They were too busy being squeaky clean in the eyes of referee Jerome Garces, forgetting that in every fight you can’t win without throwing punches, even counter-punches.
“Did we push too hard on the side of being disciplined, trusting that officials would take care of foul play?” asked Schmidt in the aftermath.
“Were we too clean? Do we need to push the boundary more?
“And to be honest, I don’t think we do. They (the players) try to play within the laws and they try to commit fully to what they’re doing.”
Gentleman Rory Best does everything in his verbal power as Ireland’s captain to reason with referees when Sexton has been left crumpled on the floor.
It has also left the Leinster playmaker feeling powerless and unprotected, even vulnerable.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Sexton said in an interview last week.
“Sometimes I get straight back up, sometimes I try to stay down for a second so they might review it, or sometimes I retaliate.
“Nothing seems to work, so I just get on with it now.”
There was a time when the out-half was a protected species - and not always by the officials.
You don’t have to look any further than O’Gara to witness how it can even be a galvanising force.
Whenever someone took liberties with O’Gara, O’Callaghan took exception to the treatment handed out.
Isn’t it time Ireland showed they won’t stand by and allow Sexton to be taken out of the game?
What they have been doing for years hasn’t been working. It is time to look after their brother?