Friday 21 July 2017

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt backs Johnny Sexton to fire against France

Ireland's Johnny Sexton is back in the team for the Six Nations visit of France
Ireland's Johnny Sexton is back in the team for the Six Nations visit of France

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has tipped Johnny Sexton to shake off his latest injury absence and complete yet another comeback victory over France on Saturday.

Sexton has finally beaten his month-long calf problem in time to start Ireland's RBS 6 Nations clash with France in Dublin this weekend.

The 31-year-old was told in midweek he had no "divine right" to selection by assistant coach Richie Murphy, but has still been parachuted back into Ireland's starting line-up at Paddy Jackson's expense.

Sexton returned from a 12-week enforced absence due to concussion to play a pivotal role in Ireland's 18-11 win over France in Dublin in 2015 - and Schmidt believes the linchpin fly-half can now repeat that feat.

"We know it's going to be physical; it doesn't matter who you play it's going to be physical," said Schmidt.

"Two years ago Johnny came back in against the French and I thought played really well.

"He got some fairly physical impacts on that day and he hadn't played for 12 weeks, and I thought he was super.

"So again that's part of what you base your decision-making on.

"What have people done in the past? Can they replicate that in the future?

"Well if they've done it in the past they're more likely to replicate it.

"So we are confident, I think Johnny is confident as well, and I think that's important."

Sexton has been sidelined with calf trouble since Leinster's 24-24 European draw in Castres on January 20, but will now slot straight back in at fly-half at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

The British and Irish Lions series winner has clocked up just 130 minutes for Leinster since November, and has not featured for Ireland since the autumn series loss to New Zealand in Dublin.

Ulster fly-half Jackson has impressed in Sexton's many recent absences, notably in Ireland's summer tour to South Africa. But Sexton's return to full fitness has led to his immediate recall, as expected.

Ireland show three changes from the side that hammered Italy 63-10 in Rome on Saturday, February 11, with Jack McGrath and Rory Best returning in the front-row.

Sexton can expect just the latest in a string of physical onslaughts from the French, who love nothing more than targeting Ireland's front-line playmaker.

Sexton was knocked unconscious but scored two tries when Ireland edged out France 22-20 in Dublin in 2014 to land the Six Nations title in Brian O'Driscoll's final ever Test match.

The Leinster fly-half then suffered a nasty black eye amid a host of clashes with bullocking centre Mathieu Bastareaud when Ireland saw off France in Dublin two years ago.

The French also made a big play of targeting Sexton ahead of the World Cup 2015 clash with Ireland, only for Schmidt's men to emerge victorious 24-9 in Cardiff.

"It was a call like any other, we debated it and we do believe we get a good balance with having both players available," said Schmidt of the selection decision on starting Sexton ahead of Jackson.

"It's very hard to come into a side and come off the bench when you haven't played.

"So starting the match has allowed Johnny a bit more training time with the team this week.

"It's a balance, and I think on Saturday based on how things have gone in the past we'll probably see both players in some positions in some stage of the game.

"He's done a lot of conditioning in the period of his injury, and fitness is never really an issue for Johnny, it's just making sure he's fully fit. And he is.

"He trained well today and fully on Tuesday. He's highly motivated to get into the game on Saturday."

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