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Johnny Sexton’s Ireland selection raises concern with safety campaigners

Johnny Sexton, pictured, has the thumbs up to keep playing but safety campaigners have raised concerns (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Johnny Sexton, pictured, has the thumbs up to keep playing but safety campaigners have raised concerns (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Safety campaigners have warned that rugby’s head-injury checks are “being exposed” after Johnny Sexton was selected for Ireland’s second Test against New Zealand.

Talismanic fly-half Sexton failed an on-pitch assessment in last weekend’s 42-19 first Test defeat by the All Blacks, leaving the field and not returning.

Ireland confirmed earlier this week that Sexton passed the latter stages of the head-injury assessment (HIA) process, however, leaving the 36-year-old available for Saturday’s second Test in Dunedin.

Sexton was duly named in Ireland’s starting line-up on Thursday, in a move that raised concerns with safety campaign group Progressive Rugby.

“Elite players who fail an in-game HIA1 have, by definition, displayed cognitive dysfunction requiring their removal,” said a Progressive Rugby spokesperson.

“In our view, this is sufficient evidence, regardless of subsequent testing, to exercise extreme caution for the good of both their short and long-term health.

“This caution must be further amplified in players with a history of brain injury, as evidence is they are at higher risk of sustaining further concussions and other injuries.

“Regrettably, the HIA is being exposed. Last week the process again failed to diagnose a clear and obvious brain injury (Jeremy Loughman), while three days later we are told it has identified a phantom one (Sexton).

“The fact is there remains no examination by any expert that can demonstrate a brain has healed and is not at risk of further damage. As such, if player welfare is truly the game’s number one priority, the only option must be to err on the side of caution – otherwise the new elite protocols are failing in their key purpose.”

Sexton turns 37 next week and has battled with head knocks and the perception around them his entire career.

The Leinster playmaker slipped and collided with New Zealand’s Sam Cane’s legs in the first Test, leading to his removal from the Eden Park clash.

Ireland boss Andy Farrell confirmed Sexton had later passed later stages of the HIA process, with assistant coach Mike Catt declaring the experienced outside-half “good to go” on Tuesday.

Governing body World Rugby was contacted for comment, while Ireland and Sexton have remained confident all protocols were fully followed.

Ireland boss Farrell has made just one change for the second All Blacks Test, with Mack Hansen replacing Keith Earls on the wing.

Farrell insisted his players deserved a shot a redemption despite last weekend’s hefty series-opening loss in Auckland.

“There’s all sorts of different ramifications that go into selection, sometimes players probably have not performed to the standards they judge themselves on,” said Farrell.

“To not give people a chance to correct that is sometimes missing an opportunity, so there’s a little bit of that.

“Some people are unlucky probably not to start because they had good impact off the bench etcetera, they understand that as well.

“This has been more of a straightforward week obviously, and a lot of the lads have an opportunity to go again.”

New Zealand ran in six tries to Ireland’s three at Eden Park last weekend, with Farrell well aware the tourists must sharpen up in defence.

However, the former dual-code international also insisted Ireland “know the answers” to the All Blacks’ questions.

“To be honest the lads are in a good place, obviously now, the Thursday before a Test match you would expect them to be,” said Farrell.

“But even early in the week, there’s a bit of doubt comes in when you don’t know the answers – but they know the answers, they know the bits that they need to get right.

“They know the access they gave the All Blacks and they know that they can’t do that.

“They know first hand that if you do that you’ll be behind your own posts.

“There’s been a few things to fix, and there’s a bit of excitement to build up now.”

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