Johnny Sexton last night dismissed comments about his health from Eddie Jones yesterday as Ireland’s fly-half was deemed a fair target by the new England coach for tomorrow’s Twickenham showdown.
Sexton’s medical issues have become the subject of intense interest following his premature departure from the field at Stade de France 13 days ago having been the subject of sustained physical attention by France during his 70 minutes on the field.
The Ireland playmaker suffered what Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt described as a “whiplash injury”.
That terminology seemed to have exercised Jones greatly, with the England boss taking his provocative comments about Ireland’s game-plan on a stage by getting personal about its on-field instigator.
“Sexton is an interesting one,” Jones said. “They’ve talked about him having a whiplash injury, which is not a great thing to talk about. I’m sure his mother and father would be worried about that. Hopefully the lad is alright on Saturday to play.”
Sexton’s history of concussive episodes have been well documented. They led to him being stood down by a French doctor — he was playing for Racing Metro in France at the time — for 12 weeks ahead of the 2015 Six Nations as a preventative measure.
Yet there has been frustration in the Irish camp that subsequent injuries may have been misreported. He needed clearance from neurologists to resume playing and has not suffered a concussion since that break from the game.
News of Jones’s comments quickly filtered through to the Ireland camp at Carton House, where Schmidt was yesterday naming his team for the trip to Twickenham.
Neither coach nor Sexton said they had read the quotes but heard about them and both said they did not know the context in which they were delivered.
Schmidt said: “The thing that any scaremongering or any criticism does, is that players do have families, friends and that network tends to ripple out into the community and it’s never great, because I think then that inevitably does rebound into the environment and can cause a little bit of anxiety for the player; nothing to do with how fit and able they are, but just that other people are worried about them and maybe that’s a distraction that can start to hamper preparation. I’d like to think that’s not the case.”
Sexton dismissed Jones’s comments when he told television journalists: “Maybe he’s just trying to jump on the bandwagon about head injuries, it’s a hot topic at the moment.
“I’ve kind of been branded with it a little bit, because I’ve taken a break previously, but that break was very much a precaution to prevent me having any problems in the future.
“That worked and there haven’t been any problems.”
Clearly annoyed at how his well-being is being scrutinised by people without knowledge of his medical history, Sexton suggested such reporting was counter to what the return to play protocols were trying to achieve and cited as an example his removal from Leinster’s European tie with Wasps in January when he had suffered a head injury but passed his Head Injury Assessment.
“I stayed off against Wasps and that created a big story over nothing really. I’d have been better off coming back on to the pitch. The way the media reacted, it’s encouraging players to try and play on with those minor head knocks which is exactly what the doctors are trying not to do.
“It can be pretty frustrating when people are diagnosing you that have absolutely no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s very frustrating when they’re talking about concussion, which is a very serious issue.
“If I said over and over again that a member of the press or media had dementia I’d be sued for slander, so it can be very frustrating at times when you’re being labelled with being concussed when you’re not.
“It’s not ideal, but there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ve got to just get on with things.”
Schmidt had earlier declared Sexton “absolutely” fit to face England as he named his fly-half in a side featuring five changes from the side which started the 10-9 defeat in France.
The Ireland boss has handed Test debuts to Stuart McCloskey at inside centre and openside flanker Josh van der Flier. Mike Ross returns at tighthead prop to shore up the Irish scrum as Nathan White drops to the bench, Donnacha Ryan going the other way to replace the absent Mike McCarthy at lock with a third uncapped player, Connacht’s Ultan Dillane, among the replacements.
The final change sees Keith Earls take over on the left wing for the injured Dave Kearney.
McCloskey’s inclusion at number 12 came after Jared Payne’s failure to overcome a hamstring injury, his outside centre berth filled by Robbie Henshaw, moving one place out to accommodate the 23-year-old at inside centre.
Schmidt could have restored a fit-again Earls as he did during the World Cup when Payne was ruled out with a foot injury but instead the Munster man, having fully recovered from a concussion suffered against Wales on February 7, returns to the wing. McCloskey, he said, had looked comfortable in training playing between Sexton and Henshaw.
“The guys who have been selected really merited the opportunity, we’re a little excited and a little apprehensive to see how that all works out.”
Johnny Sexton will be unfazed by England boss Eddie Jones questioning his long-term health, according to Andrew Trimble.
England head coach Jones questioned the wisdom of Ireland pitching Sexton straight back into RBS 6 Nations action this weekend, after the neck injury he suffered in the 10-9 defeat in France on February 13.
“I don’t think Johnny will be frustrated by any of that in the slightest,” Trimble said. “I think there’s been enough talk about it. You can read comments about it, but it doesn’t actually make an impact on what happens on the pitch. If Johnny knows he feels fit then I don’t think he’ll be frustrated in the slightest by it.”
Ulster wing Trimble believes Sexton is well placed to produce a classic performance at Twickenham, however, and in the process shut down much of the disquiet that continues to dog his every move.
“He can definitely go out there and end a lot of that chat,” Trimble said.
“Johnny’s confrontational and aggressive, and that’s just with us, never mind the opposition. “
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