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green giant Relentlessly driven and freakishly gifted, Johnny Sexton is a sporting icon – but health has to be the primary concern

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Ireland captain is tended to by team physio Keith Fox, left, and team doctor Dr Ciarán Cosgrave before being replaced during the Six Nations defeat to Wales last Sunday. Photo: Gareth Everett/Sportsfile

Ireland captain is tended to by team physio Keith Fox, left, and team doctor Dr Ciarán Cosgrave before being replaced during the Six Nations defeat to Wales last Sunday. Photo: Gareth Everett/Sportsfile

Ireland captain is tended to by team physio Keith Fox, left, and team doctor Dr Ciarán Cosgrave before being replaced during the Six Nations defeat to Wales last Sunday. Photo: Gareth Everett/Sportsfile

If NPHET’s remit was extended to another pandemic, the one that renders rugby players and crash test dummies ever more indistinguishable, Tony Holohan might be inclined to narrow the dimensions of Johnny Sexton’s world.

Consider the most excruciatingly familiar postcard from an Irish Six Nations weekend.

The one that sees Sexton dazed or wincing or spread-eagled on some churned turf, a vision of distress, as if peak-era Mike Tyson had confused the Dubliner for somebody who had previously mocked his lisp.

That familiar February reel unspooled again last Sunday: Ireland’s captain being led gingerly away by the medics for another Head Injury Assessment, his temple having just felt the full bone-shuddering force of Justin Tipuric’s knee.

Sexton is 35, a sporting senior citizen, but age is hardly the primary concern here.

He is, after all, eight years younger than his fellow quarterback, Tom Brady. And there was the remarkable gridiron spearhead, as ancient as America’s Liberty Bell, bending one more Super Bowl to his iron will.

On the same weekend a groggy Sexton found himself tangled up once more in concussion protocols, 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the 500th club goal of a timeless career to keep resurgent Milan at the Serie A summit.

And Cristiano Ronaldo, 36-years-young, his biography one that refuses to meet its back cover, moved to 300 goals since turning 30 (chew on the wonder of that statistic for just a moment), an insatiable figure advancing his haul for the season to 23 in 24 appearances in all competitions.

On Monday, the Williams sisters, the venerable 40-year-old Venus and baby sis, Serena (a bonny 39), froze Melbourne’s ticking clock to advance deeper into the Australian Open.

Sexton’s fellow son of Anna Livia, the eternal GAA gladiator, Stephen Cluxton, walks into his 40th year without offering any hint that he is ready to turn his back on the Croke Park coliseum.

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Ireland captain Johnny Sexton at the launch for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship. Photo: INPHO/Irish Rugby Football Union

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton at the launch for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship. Photo: INPHO/Irish Rugby Football Union

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton at the launch for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship. Photo: INPHO/Irish Rugby Football Union

Heck, 50-year-old Frankie Dettori was recently voted the world's most accomplished jockey for a third straight year.

Age, in this wonderland of freakishly high achievement, can truly sometimes be rendered just a number.

Sexton's likeness will soon be studied by the Mount Rushmore sculpting department. The briefest flick through his back catalogue provides an avalanche of evidence to support the thesis that here is an authentic sporting giant.

It is true, too, that the curve of his performance graph has been in sharp decline since his towering 2018 opus, a Grand Slam and Champions Cup masterclass that made him the consensus choice to be crowned king of Planet Rugby.

But neither is form the primary issue.

Even as his powers diminish, Andy Farrell, having cast his eye over Jack Carty, Ross Byrne and, Sunday’s anguished fall-guy, Billy Burns, hardly stands alone in his assessment that Sexton remains his outstanding option.

Those who know best insist that until – or if - Joey Carbery eventually passes his NCT, even a diminished Johnny remains untouchable as conductor of Ireland’s orchestra.

And that is how the player himself likes it, that green number ten shirt apparently as vital to his existence as oxygen.

It hardly requires the deductive skills of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes to recognise that Sexton is addicted to the narcotic of competition.

Consumed by the pursuit of victory, relentlessly driven, freakishly gifted, assertive, ceaselessly demanding 11/10 sorcery from both himself and others, he remains incapable of masking his fury when reality intervenes to graffiti imperfections on his immaculately crafted vision.

Closer to his 40th birthday than his 30th, Sexton continues to rage at opponents, team-mates, match officials, even, as Farrell discovered in Paris in the autumn, any coach who dares to decommission Johnny’s weapons while the battle still rages.

This is, perhaps, advancing toward the nub of the issue.

Sexton, like so many natural-born competitors, is incapable of taking a voluntary step backward: He is blinded by his need to win. An insatiable thirst for glory fuels a bravery that, at times, borders on reckless.

How often has he thrown himself into the path of monstrously bigger men? How frequently does he decline to surrender when targeted for pitiless, cowardly, late, violent and vile cheap shots that, if perpetrated on a city street, would have witnesses summoning the local constabulary?

It can be desperately uncomfortable to watch him disappear one more time beneath the hooves of some snorting human buffalo.

Sexton's career is littered with excruciating examples of his being singled out for premeditated acts of thuggery.

Remember Eddie Jones, a study in rugby smugness, his demeanour untroubled by even a single molecule of grace, issuing his chilling verdict before a 2016 Six Nations meeting between England and Ireland.

"Sexton is an interesting one, they’ve talked about him having whiplash injury which is not a great thing to talk about. I'm sure his mother and father would be worried about that," he said.

All of this unspools at a time when rugby is caught in something of an existential crisis.

From Steve Thompson’s admission that he does not remember playing in the 2003 World Cup final to the growing body of evidence about the long-term damage inflicted by all those thunderous hits.

In April of last year, Alix Popham, the former Welsh international, was – like Thompson - diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Popham is 41 years of age.

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Alix Popham

Alix Popham

Alix Popham

Doctors estimated his brain had suffered 100,000 sub-concussions over the course of his 14-year professional career. He can't recall the greater part of his playing days.

He has been told his brain was so inflamed that it was as if "he had the camera but there was no film in it."

A neurologist explained to him what was happening in stark and terrifying terms: "Every contact causes a little bit of damage to your brain. Look at it like a leaking tap. If it drips once or twice on a piece of mud there'd be no mark, but if it drips for 14 years there would be a lot of damage. And there is a lot of damage showing on my scans."

Popham has been in contact with any number of old teammates and opponents. What he has encountered is a blood-curdling roll call of men who have tumbled into the abyss.

"I thought I’ll reach out to boys I played with and against in my circle. I've done that and over 50% of them are struggling in some way. Some are worse than me, unfortunately," he revealed.

Worse than a 41-year-old with early-age dementia.

Rugby is awakening – too late and too slowly – to the madness inherent in the modern game, where huge, phenomenally powerful athletes are involved in endless, high-velocity head-on collisions.

It was this awakening, this move toward zero-tolerance, which left Wayne Barnes with no option but to red card Peter O'Mahony for Sunday's reckless and dangerous challenge.

Some will argue - perhaps legitimately - that it is unfair to build this piece around any one current player.

In an interview three years ago, Johnny himself voiced his anger at the attention focussed on the blows he has suffered.

"Like, I have had plenty of bangs on the head but I've probably had two or three concussions. But you talk about me and concussion and it goes hand in hand and it is very frustrating for me because it's not true," he said.

Yet in that same interview, he recalled one blow after which "I was making calls that didn’t exist and was arguing that they were right."

Sexton's health is monitored by some of the best medical minds in the country. He will, of course, take their advice rather than paying attention to any external, half-informed, often hysterical white noise.

It is a fact that both because of his long held status as Leinster and Ireland’s most important player and his unflinching style of play, he has been on the receiving end of shuddering impacts – both accidental and deliberate – a disconcerting number of times.

As far back as five years ago, an article on the sports website, Joe.ie, pointed out that the Irish out-half had suffered four concussions in the previous 25 months.

The piece appeared below the headline: "It is not sensationalist to be worried about Johnny Sexton’s concussion history."

Indeed, as Tipuric’s knee slammed into the out-half last Sunday, concern felt like the most natural and reflex human reaction.

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