Like Wilkinson, Johnny Sexton must tackle his instincts

With renewed focus on concussion, there are contrasting cultures in the northern and southern hemispheres in that the approach here is to seek ‘collisions’ while the emphasis down there is to avoid ‘contact’, writes Brendan O’Brien

Like Wilkinson, Johnny Sexton must tackle his instincts

No Six Nations this week, but the media abhors a vacuum just as much as Mother Nature.

Contract signings and extensions have kept the pot boiling as we negotiate the stretch between Ireland’s engagements in Paris and London. So too is the renewed focus on concussion with Leinster’s Hayden Triggs and former Scotland international Johnnie Beattie doing more than most to focus attention on the game’s biggest issue.

Injuries in general have been another source of conversation. Ireland’s burgeoning casualty list has punched holes in Joe Schmidt’s plans and prompted many to question just why Irish players seem to be prone to such an attrition rate — and even whether our men on the field succumb to injuries at a greater rate than their colleagues elsewhere.

That last one is the kind of question that would require extensive, long-term analytical study, but the concern expressed for players such as Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Sexton, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald — all of them and more cursed by the proverbial litany of injuries in recent years — should not be underestimated.

There is a genuine fear for people’s well-being out there.

Triggs touched on this last Monday when contrasting the cultures north and south of the hemispheres in that the approach here is to seek ‘collisions’ while the emphasis down there is to avoid ‘contact’. The language alone speaks volumes and it makes sense every time you see someone like O’Brien dip his shoulder — or raise a forearm — as he ploughs into a defensive line. Sexton’s is the case that has exercised the public and press the most.

His concussion history is the chief reason for that, but the Ireland out-half is beginning to assemble an injury profile that has bred fears for his long-term well-being that are both well-intentioned and well-founded. Joe Schmidt can complain about that focus all he wants, but it won’t stop as long as Sexton is being forced from the field of play.

The frequency of those departures brings to mind the latter days of Brian O’Driscoll’s career when the centre was habitually in need of lengthy treatment at some stage of virtually every game in which he played. Yet, if Sexton’s situation is reminiscent of anyone’s it may be that of Jonny Wilkinson who was renowned for his bravery.

There is a four-minute tribute video on YouTube to the Englishman’s tackling expertise and it is fascinating to watch as he plants his feet square, dips his shoulder and then flattens men galloping at him. Momentum tells us only one outcome should be expected and yet Wilkinson sends bigger wingers, centres, full-backs and forwards backwards to the turf.

His effort on Italy’s Andrea Masi in the 2011 Six Nations has spawned its own gaggle of internet postings, but less renowned is the clip from 2013 when he was with Toulon and bulldozed by Agen’s 22-stone No. 8 Opeti Fonua. This is a guy who did much the same to 6’ 6” South African lock Danie Roussouw in the same game.

It’s a scary hit and it may have been one of the moments that flashed across his mind when he gave an interview to Sky Sports a few months later when, having called time on his career, he spoke about the explosion in size and power of the modern player and how the Polynesian islands were to the forefront of rugby’s mushrooming DNA.

Sexton is renowned for his application and drive yet if there is one modern player who probably outdid him there then it was Wilkinson. His tackling was one thing, but it was an insistence on digging into rucks that really made his coaches wince and Clive Woodward gave an insight into that when he interviewed his World Cup-winning out-half 10 years after that 2003 triumph.

<span class="contextmenu emphasis">NOT AGAIN</span>: Dejected Ireland out-half Jonathan Sexton walks off the pitch after picking up an injury in the RBS Six Nations Championship clash against France at the Stade de France
NOT AGAIN: Dejected Ireland out-half Jonathan Sexton walks off the pitch after picking up an injury in the RBS Six Nations Championship clash against France at the Stade de France

Woodward spoke of his unease at how his playmaker hit an astonishing 25 rucks in one Six Nations game during that ’03 season and that work ethic contributed to the loss of four years of Wilkinson’s prime years to injuries to his stingers/shoulder, knees, groin, kidney and a hernia.

It took Wilkinson years to accept his appetite for trench warfare was less valuable to his team than the ability to stay fit, step back and direct the battle. And the hope must be that both Sexton and Schmidt come to a similar conclusion in the near future. Keith Wood, speaking this week on Newstalk, put it perfectly.

“ has a duty of care to himself and at some stage he is going to have to be told to tackle lower. I don’t care that he is one of the better guys at a hold-up tackle, or a choke tackle. I don’t want him to do it because he is opening himself to getting clobbered all around the place. Make the tackle, soak the tackle. Do whatever it is. I’d rather have him on the field a lot longer.”

Sexton is 30 now, but Wilkinson was still haunted by injuries in his late 20s and yet went on to enjoy five successful years at Toulon where he boasted a largely clean bill of health. He evolved. So did O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell in their own way. So must Sexton.

Twitter: @Rackob

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