Saturday 23 September 2017

Sexton fizzing with intent to prove point

Schmidt's 'flat' talk gives star perfect motivation to show Top 14 schedule hasn't dimmed his powers

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton
Joe Schmidt
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

PLAYERS always maintain they don't read the newspapers, but from whatever form of media Johnny Sexton picked up Joe Schmidt's comments on his marathon journey from Dublin to Biarritz via Paris last weekend, he fully understood the Ireland coach's message.

The New Zealander pointedly described his out-half as "flat" when he reported for international duty last week and suggested that he would leave the Lions No 10 out of his side to take on Samoa if he was to play for Racing Metro against Biarritz on Saturday night.

Instead, Sexton spent a miserable night in the Basque country huddled on the bench, watching his club side lose to France's fallen giants before returning to Kildare to hook up with the national team.

Four flights, a warm-up and no playing minutes in horrendous rain does not sound like a quality weekend, but it may just have saved his starting place for the beginning of the Schmidt era at the Aviva Stadium.

However soul-destroying the journey might have been, Sexton made sure his coach was in no doubt about his mindset for the week when he returned to Carton House on Sunday.

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"I'm not sure if he read it (Schmidt's comments), but it was certainly pointed out to him," Ireland manager Mick Kearney revealed with a smile.

"Johnny came in last night and he was in good form. Joe asked him how he was and he asked Joe what the opposite to 'flat' was. He was quite bubbly. He is certainly under consideration for this week."

The news will come as a relief to Ireland fans who, already concerned by the huge minutes the team's key man has clocked up this season, received news via France that Sexton was carrying an injury yesterday morning.

Having left his highest-paid player on the bench for 80 arduous minutes, Racing co-coach Laurent Labit said: "He injured himself during the warm-up. I asked him if he could play but he replied, 'no'. With a stiff hip, it would have been difficult for him to kick."

Kearney was quick to allay fears of anything serious and confirmed that Schmidt's threat of resting the Lions No 10 was unlikely to come to fruition now that he'd had Saturday night off, if not the weekend.

"He's fine. He did some kicking practice with Dave Alred last Wednesday. He did about two hours and had a slight tightness but nothing at all that is going to keep him out of training this week, so he is good to go," Kearney said. "I think there's relief that he wasn't brought on because I think, if he had been, Joe would have felt obliged to rest him for this weekend.

"That was a positive, but the negative is that he had to leave here on Thursday evening at 6.0 to fly to Paris and then down to Biarritz in pretty miserable conditions and then had to get back here for Sunday night. That would induce a certain level of fatigue in him.

"But, as I say, he rocked up here on Sunday night in good form and is very keen to play on Saturday if he can convince Joe to pick him."

That shouldn't prove too difficult as, despite the emergence of Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson, a fit Sexton remains the main man for Ireland this season.

There is a huge focus on the out-half ahead of Schmidt's opening three games as Ireland coach as Irish rugby waits to see what impact the Top 14 has had on one of its hardest-working stars.

Eoin Reddan is one of the St Mary's man's closest allies in the camp and also has experience of life outside of the Irish bubble after his spell with Wasps.

The scrum-half believes that his friend can turn the game time that so concerns the coaches into a positive as match-day approaches.

"He is coping with it well," Reddan said. "There is different media interest with it than usual in terms of how he is, trying to watch out if he sneezes on the way to training.

"In fairness, he is the ultimate pro. He trained well last week and didn't play at the weekend so he is good.

"Athletes tend to be incredibly self-reliant and positivity comes out of them. You know, if I step on the scales at the weekend and I'm a kilo lighter, I'm going to be thinking, 'Jeez, I'm a kilo lighter'. If I'm a kilo heavier I'll be thinking, 'I'll be ready if someone runs into me'.

"When I was at Wasps and I played every week, I used to come to Ireland thinking, 'I've got an edge here now, none of these lads have played as much rugby as I have'.

"And then when I was at Leinster and playing every second week with 'Bossy' (Isaac Boss), I was thinking, 'I'm fresher'.

"That's the way it goes and I think Johnny is very much like that. Well, I know he is and I know he certainly feels very, very sharp match-wise and with Metro he's got to win games based on what's put in front of him all the time.

"It's not an exactly an all-out plan for 80 minutes; it's if he can just keep playing, playing, playing, they can get across the line.

"He's got to make big calls during the game and manage the game, so he certainly feels that's going to help him when he comes back to international rugby.

"I think if you have that mindset where you look at it and you're able to take the positives from it and apply it, then that's fine. The worst case scenario is if someone shows up and they're feeling they have played too many games.

"That's when the problems start to happen. I certainly don't think we're at that stage yet and with Johnny I don't ever see that happening."

Once Sexton takes to the field on Saturday he'll be hoping to put in a performance that will move the discussion on from his arduous schedule, and his Saturday night off may just have done enough to give him the opportunity to prove he's lost nothing in France.

Irish Independent

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