Johnny Sexton angry at 'stigma of concussion'

Jonathan Sexton has addressed the confusion over his head injury assessment (HIA) last month while again highlighting his frustration at the “stigma of concussion” that has attached itself to his career.

The Leinster out-half underwent the assessment at the Aviva Stadium last month after attempting a tackle on Matt Kvesic of the Exeter Chiefs just two minutes into the sides’ Champions Cup pool game.

Head coach Leo Cullen revealed afterwards that the player had failed his HIA and thus did not return to the game. This was contradicted on TV later that evening when Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt claimed his No. 10 had passed the test when speaking at the RTE Sports Awards of the year.

“Look, I can take part of the blame for that because I spoke with Joe after the game and told him that I was fine,” said Sexton yesterday, “that I was a bit shook by the initial contact but that I passed all my questions, which was true, but we thought it was best not to go back on because of how I felt on the pitch.”

Under World Rugby rules, there are 11 immediate and permanent removal criteria in the first the HIA’s three stages. Among these is a player who has been ‘clearly dazed or dinged’ which Sexton, arguably, appeared to be at the time.

“I failed my HIA before I probably started it,” he said.

Rules also dictate that players must still go through the full HIA procedure even when the decision to remove permanently has already been made. Further return-to-play protocols are then followed in the subsequent days.

“It wasn’t that bad but I just got it on the soft part of my head,” he said of the incident.

“Was I concussed? No, probably not, but was it the right decision not to put me back out? Probably, yeah, because I was probably startled by the collision.”

So little is still known about brain injury and concussion. The debate at times slides into one over the terminology used: An exercise in semantics. And even experts acknowledge their understanding of the issue is minute.

Sexton has played an unwittingly frequent role in the conversation on concussion in these parts since being stood down for 12 weeks late in 2014 when, as a Racing 92 player, he suffered a number of head injuries inside a short period of time.

That decision was made by Dr Jean-Francois Cherman and it has led to considerable commentary as to his career going forward, his tackle technique, and his general well-being — mostly all of it unwelcomed by the player.

And he was clearly, maybe understandably, annoyed again yesterday when asked if the Kvesic incident had rekindled any unwanted memories of that stint spent on the sidelines in France. His reply was lengthy and worth repeating in depth.

“What happened in France was very precautionary. I don’t know how many times I have to talk about this. I picked up three mildish … sorry, one bad one and two mild knocks, and this guy says: ‘Look, you’ve had a few knocks to the head over the course of a few months and normally the protocol is that you take some time off’.

“He said: ‘I recommend you do that.’ They have signed up in France that this doctor makes all the calls. I argued it tooth and nail. I didn’t want to take 12 weeks off. I’d rather have just a couple of weeks off because I was actually fine after two or three weeks and I suppose I’ve been stuck with this stigma of concussion being attached to me when I have probably had maybe two or three ever in my career.

“I’ve had plenty of bangs on the head but I’ve probably had two or three concussions. But you talk about me in concussion and it goes hand in hand and it is very frustrating for me because it’s not true and also because we’ve got insurance companies we’ve got to talk to that don’t believe that I don’t get concussions and it can be pretty tricky.”

It’s worth pointing out here that Sexton had not reported any concussive issues between his return to Leinster from Paris up to the Exeter game and he subsequently passed the second and third stage of the HIA protocols and has since returned to play.

For him, the focus should be on how the Leinster medical staff removed him from the Exeter game in Dublin on suspicion of a concussion. A long way, he says, from his one really bad episode 10 years ago which flew under the radar.

“I made the tackle, got up and literally no-one would have known,” he said. “But the guys beside me knew. I was calling calls that didn’t exist and arguing they were right.

“It is an uncertain thing, but we’re being looked after better and better and it’s getting harder and harder to hide it. We’re being educated that you can’t hide it. It’s harder to get away from the doctors.”

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