Irish rugby chiefs have reacted angrily to claims throwing Johnny Sexton into RBS 6 Nations action against France after a 12-week concussion lay-off could prove “a big mistake”.
Former France international Laurent Benezech has questioned Ireland’s decision to start Sexton against Les Bleus in Dublin on Saturday, following his three-month stand-down for suffering four concussions in one year.
Ireland have defended the decision to select the Racing Metro fly-half all week, but were moved to issue a pointed statement on Friday night “to clarify some facts”.
Ireland have revealed for the first time that Sexton could have played against Italy last weekend – and by inference are aiming to highlight their careful handling of the British and Irish Lions fly-half.
“Player welfare is the primary concern of the Ireland medical and management team,” reads the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) statement.
“All of the medical experts directly involved in the management of Johnny Sexton are satisfied that he is fit to return to the field of play.”
Irish bosses branded Benezech’s comments as “disappointing and inaccurate commentary”, explaining Sexton has remained free of any concussion symptoms for the last two months of his enforced three-month absence.
Former France star Benezech told the Irish Times: “Ireland is in trouble as playing Sexton after what happened to him is a big mistake.”
Sexton was stood down from action by independent neurologists instructed by the French Top 14’s governing body, and the IRFU has acceded to those wishes throughout his 12-week break from action.
The IRFU statement continued: “Johnny was cleared to play on Thursday, February 5 by independent neurologists in France and Ireland, the FFR concussion review committee, the Racing Metro medical team, the Ireland medical team.”
Ireland’s statement is a step rendered all the more unusual given the detail within it was not revealed or volunteered in a lunchtime press conference, despite much discussion of Sexton’s situation.
Ireland have not previously made public the fact that they chose not to select Sexton for their first-round clash in Rome, which Joe Schmidt’s side won 26-3 last weekend.
The intimation was that Sexton was simply not available as he completed the final week of his three-month absence.
This statement claims otherwise, and is designed to assert the IRFU’s right to field Sexton this weekend, and prove an extra level of sensitivity to their approach.
France spent the early part of the week volunteering their determination to throw the kitchen sink, as well as tree-trunk centre Mathieu Bastareaud, straight down Sexton’s channel at the Aviva Stadium.
Captain Thierry Dusautoir and assistant coach Yannick Bru attempted to downplay such tactics in Friday’s press conference in Dublin however – and Ireland’s frustrations with outside commentary may just account for some of that carefully-orchestrated backward step.
When Ireland’s scrum coach Greg Feek and Paul O’Connell addressed 47-cap Sexton’s return on Friday lunchtime, both men hailed his physical condition and mental fortitude.
Feek believes it is “a credit” to Sexton that he is fully fit and itching for a Test return after his absence.
“Johnny’s selected, he’s been keen to play and he’s fine,” said Feek.
“We’ve got brilliant medical staff and strength and conditioning staff, and we all work together on that process.
“Then the players themselves are involved in that.
“When is the right time? What is the right game? That’s the big question-mark.
“We felt this was it. He did everything he needed to do, so it’s a credit to the player to be available at this point as well.”
Ireland captain Paul O’Connell hailed Sexton as “an incredible player”, who will cope with whatever France throw at him on Saturday.
“Johnny’s a really good professional, he enjoys his training,” said O’Connell.
“While he wasn’t able to train very hard in his earlier days of being out, he’s treated the break as a bit of a mini pre-season as well.
“He’s been able to look after his hamstring and get a bit of weights done, and relax the mind a bit.
“It’s great to have him back in the side: he’s an incredible player, and he’s very aware of how Joe (Schmidt) wants things done having worked under him for a long time.
“I played in a team with Ronan O’Gara for many years where teams knew how important he was to us and always attacked the 10 channel.
“It’s every team’s focus to attack the 10 channel, it’s where a team’s playmaker is and it’s part and parcel of the game.
“France can attack us anywhere and attacking the 10 channel is nothing new.”