Sport Rugby

Friday 20 July 2018

Sorry Johnny, but overall welfare of the game is more important than fortunes of one player

Johnny Sexton after suffering a head injury with Ireland
Johnny Sexton after suffering a head injury with Ireland
Jonathan Sexton admitted it was partly his fault that Joe Schmidt misinformed the media by claiming the player had passed a Head Injury Assessment. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The general eagerness to put a 'Johnny Sexton sets the record straight on concussion' slant on the player's comments concerning his various head injuries shows the extent to which sports coverage is sometimes refracted through the prism of celebrity.

Not just the facts but even the comments themselves tell a somewhat less straightforward story.

For one thing Sexton admitted it was partly his fault that Joe Schmidt misinformed the media by claiming the player had passed a Head Injury Assessment after the Exeter game when he actually hadn't. Sexton's explanation, that Schmidt misunderstood what he meant when he said he was 'fine' and that he told the manager that he'd passed 'the questions' in the HIA, isn't exactly crystal clear. Why would Sexton tell the manager these things and neglect to mention the most important fact of all, that he'd failed the test?

The HIA is generally regarded as a good indicator of whether concussion has been suffered. So Sexton's comment that he 'probably' didn't suffer a concussion against Exeter and came off because he was 'startled' is kind of beside the point.

Unless you're inclined to take the 'Who's going to know best about this? The player himself or some, y'know, doctor?' line. Similarly his comments on how a player can be taken off even if he passes the HIA aren't all that relevant. Because Johnny Sexton did fail the HIA after the Exeter game.

The uncritical reporting of Sexton's attempts to rewrite the history of what happened to him at Racing Metro can only be ascribed to a combination of wishful thinking and deference towards the player's status.

14 February 2015; Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is attended to by team doctor Dr. Eanna Falvey and referee Wayne Barnes following a blood injury during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
14 February 2015; Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is attended to by team doctor Dr. Eanna Falvey and referee Wayne Barnes following a blood injury during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

The fact remains that in 2014 the French club made him take 12 weeks off because, as was widely reported at the time, he'd suffered four concussions in a year. Last week Sexton converted this into, "One bad one and two mild ones . . . a few knocks on the head," and suggested he'd only had, "two or three concussions in his career."

Sexton complained that the 12-week lay-off was excessive because he was "actually fine after two or three weeks". Again it boils down to whether you think players or doctors know better, something which shouldn't be swayed by the fact that the player is one of Ireland's sporting heroes and the doctor is just some random French dude.

Though it might be worth observing that Sexton's lack of precision, "two or three" concussions, "two or three" weeks, might not inspire confidence among the medical profession.

You can understand why Sexton wishes to put the best possible construction on his record in this area. He must be worried that one more concussion could lead to another enforced lay-off with potentially catastrophic consequences for not just the player but Leinster and Ireland too. We can all sympathise with that.

There will even be those who argue that in a situation like this, Johnny Sexton's health is Johnny Sexton's own business. Except that it's not just his health that's at stake in this debate. Perhaps inadvertently, his comments about the Racing Metro lay-off and about HIAs give ammunition to those who like to argue that too much fuss is being made about the concussion issue. Things like Brian O'Driscoll's "The game has gone soft" comment from last month don't help either.

The simple fact is that if rugby decides to position itself as the non-PC sporting opponent of the 'Health and Safety culture' disparaged by Leicester manager Matt O'Connor recently, it will follow American football in drastically losing player numbers.

Parents simply aren't impressed by that kind of thinking anymore. Anyone who is, probably took too many cracks on the noggin in their own playing days.

Most people know this. But accepting something in the abstract is always easier than dealing with its concrete effects. Everyone's in favour of improved road safety but no-one likes getting done for speeding. And everyone is in favour of rugby's concussion protocols till it adversely affects their own team.

It is, you might say, all fun and games till someone loses a player. But there's no alternative to the current regime which will, as time goes by, become more rather than less rigorous. Because the overall welfare of the game should always be more important than the fortunes of one player or one team, no matter how talented or how famous they are.

Nobody's picking on Johnny Sexton. It's just that, whatever about concussions, the sight of the man suffering head injuries has been an unfortunately familiar one over the years. People worry about him. Acting like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail hopping around declaring, "'Tis but a flesh wound," won't change that.

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