Wednesday 20 March 2019

Tony Ward: Decision to sideline Jonny Sexton is the right one

Out-half's absence must open door for Madigan to take the reins for Ireland and Leinster

With Johnny Sexton ruled out of the Six Nations opener in Rome, the Jimmy Gopperth/Ian Madigan debate at Leinster is about to go up a notch. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
With Johnny Sexton ruled out of the Six Nations opener in Rome, the Jimmy Gopperth/Ian Madigan debate at Leinster is about to go up a notch. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I do envy this generation their lot. Pushed for my own personal sporting regret - and no it wasn't being dropped by Ireland in Australia - it would relate to the missed shot at professionalism.

I guess being born 20 years too early rankles. As John Hume once said in a different context, "We are all accidents of birth". My 'accident' for sure came 20 years ahead of its time.

This thought has again come to mind but provoked by a development that I think has caused everyone with the remotest interest in rugby to pause and reflect.

The news that Johnny Sexton, currently showing the form of his life, has effectively been banned (medically) from crossing the white lines until February 14 at the very earliest has sent tremors through the still fledgling professional game. And with good reason.

The higher the profile of the player involved in whatever the issue of the day, the greater its impact from grassroots level up. So when the leading number ten in world rugby on current form is deemed to have shipped a knock to the head too many - remember it is the fourth such injury (concussion) in this calendar year - the decision to take the lacing of boots out of his hands for 12 weeks at least is not just logical but morally right.

Let there be no ambiguity here. The days when players took a quick dab of the wet sponge to the head and continued on regardless with the coach all but physically pushing them back into action are now a thing of the past.

Taboo

I had a casual conversation with Hugo MacNeill on the subject over the weekend and while we both conceded to it being taboo while playing, we admitted to continuing to play on on at least four or five occasions while concussed. I remember one particular match, and I have mentioned it in a different context here before, against France in Dublin. I took a blow to the side of the head and was seeing stars, or black spots to be precise.

These were the days when players stayed out on the pitch at the half-time interval. I was taken inside by the medical team and after the mandatory check on me knowing the score, who we were playing, what stage in the match, all that sort of thing, I ran back on and without realising it rejoined the French in their mid-match pep talk.

Funny in retrospect but very true and a clear indication of me being in no position to carry on playing. With no legislation governing concussion then in place nobody but nobody was taking me from that pitch that day or (as with Hugo) on other occasions too.

Players live for the here and now. They can see no tomorrow. That has now changed with any decision regarding concussion made for and not by the player concerned.

The protocol put in place by World Rugby (former IRB) and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby for the Top 14 (LNR) states "that after suffering four instances of concussion in a year, a player must observe an obligatory stand-down period of 12 weeks" - hence this enforced break for Sexton now. Of course it is disappointing for everyone concerned but it is the right decision. The welfare of the player is paramount and while as amateurs we were reckless in that regard, there is no excuse in this professional era now and a game where players are bigger, hits are harder and the potential impact devastating.

Joe Schmidt, while clearly disappointed, and bearing in mind there's no guarantee his playmaker-in-chief will be back for the visit of the French to Lansdowne Road, has some serious planning in the weeks ahead. Matt O'Connor will now be central to that re-organisation.

With Sexton ruled out of the Six Nations opener in Rome, the Jimmy Gopperth/Ian Madigan debate at Leinster is about to shift from both to either/or. To that end, the timing of Noel Reid's promising tour de force against Connacht could hardly be better, making it now a choice of two from three between Luke Fitzgerald, Reid and Gordon D'Arcy for the midfield pairing, although I would like to think that Fitzgerald's position down that outside channel is increasingly set in stone.

That would see Madigan wearing ten with Gopperth in reserve and, as the second-best out-half available to Schmidt by a mile, the selection of Madigan to run the Leinster show between now and the Six Nations is a no-brainer.

Tough on Gopperth for sure but such are the vagaries of life in the fast lane of pro rugby. Gopperth is getting a bum rap from a segment of Leinster fans but for other reasons - in this case the right one - they will now get their way. Mind you, a Leinster backline for 'tomorrow' of Madigan, Reid and Fitzgerald at ten, 12 and 13 doesn't half whet the appetite.

Beyond a committed, and in many ways, enjoyable derby at the RDS (where Bundee Aki and Kane Douglas really came of age in green and blue respectively), it was a bad weekend for Ulster and Munster on the road.

Ulster really appear to be all over the place, having lost their way in the Champions Cup and their plight was summed up best with the glimpse into the half-time dressing room at Liberty Stadium and assistant coach Jonny Bell clearly having to emphasise pride in the jersey.

Blunt

For Munster, the depression is equally as bad. They appear what they are: blunt in the extreme. JJ Hanrahan is a talented footballer but right now a long way short of the type of game-running out-half essential to Munster's needs at this point in time. I would play him at 12 but I suspect the up-the-jumper physicality of Denis Hurley will win out.

Felix Jones, after a promising few months, has sadly drifted back into old 'clear out' ways. Take away Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo and the backline is a mess.

 

Referee Wilkinson lays down the law

As Treviso go from bad to worse, it's nice to be able to report something positive coming from yet another Italian horror show, this time at Murrayfield when thumped (48-0)  by an Edinburgh side hardly setting the Pro12 alight.

It relates to a brawl in the final quarter whereby Treviso replacement prop Romula Acosta rightly shipped red for sparking it by way of a volley of punches. Edinburgh scrum-half Grayson Hart got yellow for retaliation but, unlike Acosta, his attempted jabs weren't at the head.

All told, it made for an unsavoury couple of minutes spilling over the sideline.

But there was a positive outcome and it came in the down-to-earth and assertive handling of the match officials and specifically referee David Wilkinson.

TMO Ian Ramage got the card colour right in his assessment of the incident but it was Wilkinson's admonishment of both players, particularly the Italian captain (when attempting to appeal), that sealed the moment.

"Away you go, it's over, that was an absolute disgrace". No elaboration necessary. Assertive control at its best.

Irish Independent

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