Jonathan Sexton's scars sadly match a tainted sport
Out-half vows to play again next week despite suffering more knocks to head in bruising battle, writes David Kelly
THE nation exalts at the altar of the oddest form of heroism.
It is 6.16pm and the baying crowd has, to a man, woman and child, rose to acclaim a blood-stained poster boy for modern professional rugby.
Jonathan Sexton, bravery and courage personified, symbolises an evening of eye-popping brutality.
Ireland, the winners of this epic contest, have not once broken the line so nothing to cheer there; France, once the epitome of flair and panache, are instead a hapless mob of fraudulent impostors.
Instead, the game is viewed through a prism of grisly violence, some of which was distastefully portended by the loose-lipped visitors; Pascal Pape's brutish knee renders Jamie Heaslip, who plays for eight minutes with suspected broken vertebrae, virtually unable to walk up the stairs unaided hours later.
France's intentions had been crystal clear; they would target Sexton, returning after a three-month absence due to four concussions.
They would target his perceived weakness. Not his leg or his ankle or his shoulder but his head. This was the context of what was supposed to be, in essence, only a game.
Now, it seemed, what is only a game was being minimised into a terse examination of one person's ability to maximise the physical and mental damage done to another.
And all, of course, within the rules. Sorry, laws.
Laws that have long since become redundant to a sport scarily accelerating in assembling ever more bulkier behemoths so punters can pay €95 to watch a ceaseless assembly of human dodgem cars carom into each other.
And yet there is an inescapable, queasy feeling within the stomach that refuses to budge, a sense that the gratuitous violence which roams the sport is inextricably linked to implicit acceptance by its audience.
Why else would the Aviva Stadium reserve its most volcanic voice for the battered, bloodied and bruised Sexton's return to the field after the mandatory 10 minutes required to test whether or not he was fully conscious?
At that precise moment, it was quite impossible to discern how, if at all, the mass gathering were trying to conceal their voyeuristic desire in witnessing gladiators reduced to a bloodied pulp.
Suddenly, it seemed quite possible, in those seconds as Sexton and Mathieu Bastareaud were hailed from on high as the epitome of blood sacrifice, to forget this was supposed to be a sporting occasion at all.
Mercifully, violence may flourish on the field but it never leaves it.
"We are best friends now," Bastareaud smiles at us later. "After his long rest we tried to test him but today he had a lot of bodyguards. We love each other."
Then Sexton approaches; his left eye, atop which are six neat stitches, might be almost fully closed but the two dis-coloured bruises encircling it make it difficult to ascertain if this is so.
Beneath one bulbous bruise, below his eye, it seems as if a miniature mouse has crawled beneath his skin.
This is the face of modern professional rugby.
The man behind the face has endured to tell his tale. We ask him how he feels with an asinine quality one might expect if posing a similar question to a car crash victim.
"All good, thanks," says the gentle man and warrior. Were it not for the visible evidence, it would be difficult to acknowledge that this was a guy who was willingly butting heads with opponents a couple of hours earlier. Many people, from justifiably concerned parents throughout the land to amateur doctors on bar stools, had not wanted Sexton to play on Saturday.
Which begged the question; When would have been a satisfactory time for Sexton to return? Last week? Next week? Never?
"Joe Schmidt had a word with me yesterday, he couldn't really believe it," he says, referring Laurent Benezech, who told Newstalk Sexton should not have played.
"I had been out of the game for 12 weeks. One guy says that I shouldn't play because Bastareaud is playing? Like, well then I can never play because next week I'm going to have to play against Fritz Lee.
"The week after I'll have to play against Billy Vunipola. It's absolute stupidity to say that I shouldn't play because Bastareaud was playing.
"Joe gets told by the doctors who is fit and who is not and I don't know why he got brought into it by this fella who seems to have an opinion on everything."
Sexton is not a cheap piece of meat; he is a parent, too. His parents, remember, and his wife, had to watch him too.
"Of course I understand the concern," he explains. "But when you get kept out of the game for 12 weeks and then someone says you shouldn't play because there's one certain player playing against you, it's just stupid.
"I took 12 weeks off which was the best thing for me as a player, a person and for my health. I was 100pc fit today. I proved it with that bang on the head and I felt absolutely fine after it."
More than one bang on the head to test one's resolution; Sexton's bravery veers towards recklessness; the blow that forced him off was caused by two players tackling high.
World Rugby, aside from tightening its governance of the concussion problem, should now immediately ban such tackles.
Even Christian Grey would bristle at such sado-masochism; rugby now has fifty shades of decay; the graffiti is writ large on Sexton's violated visage.
While Sexton was detained on the sideline from the 45th minute until the day's most raucous reception alerted all to his return, he underwent a Head Injury Assessment (HIA).
"The medics talk to Johnny and they let me know that Johnny's fine, but that he's got blood and has to leave the field," Schmidt later tells us.
"So, he then has 15 minutes before he has to be back on the pitch. He needed stitches and he got those in. He did a HIA to be absolutely, 100pc sure and he was showing no signs of concussion but they did it as a precaution and he was absolutely fine."
Sexton confirms: "The doctors did a great job and I was fine. Head-wise I felt great. I was really happy. I was almost pleased to get a bang like that so it proves to myself there is no issue going forward. It's just great to put it to bed now."
Schmidt is eager to draw a line in the sand too.
"If I can say it any more plainly, Johnny is fine. We take the very best medical and professional advice on our players.
We have absolute faith in our medical people, we rely on them and not someone external who decides that they're going to voice an opinion, be given a platform and almost scaremonger their way through the concussion issue.
"The statement that was released yesterday was pretty clear and simple about that and I can guarantee that Johnny is 100pc fit apart from some stitches and a bit of a black eye."
As day moves to night, there is less and less talk of rugby; in truth, there was less and less rugby to watch.
Sexton ends an absorbing day as man of the match; a returning hero; a symbol of bravery. One can't help but feel that somehow he is a martyr to a sport that has lost its way.
His is a strange kind of glory.