Sunday 23 July 2017

Joe Schmidt: Johnny Sexton just wants to play - he's not happy when he's not

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during an open training session at the Monaghan RFC grounds in Co. Monaghan. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during an open training session at the Monaghan RFC grounds in Co. Monaghan. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Irish captain Rory Best signs a flag for Molly McManus (8) from Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh, following Ireland’s open training session at the Monaghan RFC grounds yesterday. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Of all of the places Johnny Sexton thought he'd find himself during the months of February and March, the back pitch at Monaghan RFC wouldn't have featured on his list.

But there he was yesterday morning, with the crowd's backs turned as he continued his rehabilitation with a running session in conjunction with a member of Ireland's strength and conditioning staff.

As the rest of the squad trained against the U-20s in a fast-paced, intense training session in preparation for next week's Six Nations meeting with France, Conor Murray sat out and Rob Kearney did some rehab and running behind the goal, Sexton was being put through his paces away from prying eyes.

It was a rigorous work-out, the 31-year-old's calf and hamstrings would have been fully tested by the full-on sprinting combined with some movement work and Joe Schmidt said that he was meeting the requirements that Ireland need him to meet.

He hopes that Sexton will join the rest of the team on the pitch for part of Monday's session, before taking part in the all-important Tuesday work-out in order to prove his fitness.

Three full training sessions remain for Sexton to prepare for the game, having played a total of 172 minutes since Ireland's defeat to New Zealand in November, yet if he can hit the ground running next week there is little doubt that he will leapfrog Paddy Jackson who occupied the No 10 role in yesterday's hit-out.

There may be growing calls for the Ulster fly-half to hold onto the shirt after guiding the ship well in most of Ireland's recent internationals, but there is no doubting who the main man is in the coach's mind.

"I think Johnny starts a ripple in the team, very often. He is in a hub position, where a lot of his confidence goes through the team, and Paddy's growing that all the time," he said.

"You don't quite know where the overlap is, but we do know what Johnny's done for us in the past and that stands him in pretty good stead. We know how Paddy's developing - if you go back to the All Black game (in Dublin) where he had to replace Johnny after 20 minutes; he had to come in and immediately take over the reins.

"That was tough for him in the first 20 minutes, but after half-time when he got a breath and got a bit of clarity, he really started to manage the second half well.

"There were a couple of things he could have managed better, that he learned from, then the Australia game he was a little better again.

"Then the Scotland game, we got put under pressure and it was a bit different with him being on the back-foot and having to manage things, but we grew on to the front foot in the second half, and then to the Italy game where I thought he gave us really good direction and took a number of really good options, that he's got the technical ability to give us.

"His pass quality, I thought his goal-kicking was super, a couple of his kicks in play, there were things we were looking for him to do a bit of work on.

"They were the right options, just probably not in the right place a couple of times and so, all those aspects...nobody gets every performance perfect, because there are so many variables that they mix and match and move, you read an image and suddenly the image changes and you have to be adaptable and experience helps you with that.

"That experience that Paddy is getting is growing him into the leader we need and the experience Johnny has makes him the leader that has led us so well. They're the decisions we will consider post-Tuesday."

Since Sexton damaged both of his hamstrings in the autumn and subsequently injured his calf on his return, Schmidt said he is doing his best to rein in Sexton's enthusiasm.

"He just wants to play. He's not happy when he's not playing," he said. "That's what you want from a player. Players want to play, they want to be available. None more than Johnny.

"It's about sometimes tempering his expectations of himself and saying 'well Johnny, look we've got these clear markers for you and this is the physical feedback, we know how you feel, we know what your intentions are and they are admirable but we want to make sure we've ticked all the boxes here'.

"That's partly because we want to look after Johnny's longevity and also his short-term availability because we don't want that accumulation of injuries. As soon as you get one injury, you can get a little bit of compensation for that leg and, suddenly, you get a little bit of trouble in this leg. "

expectations

"You are always kind of living a little bit on an edge so it's tough for them to manage themselves and it's tough for us to manage them and their expectations and what is best for the team."

Away from out-half, Schmidt conceded that he has selection dilemmas throughout the team.

Cian Healy is pushing hard to keep Jack McGrath out, Iain Henderson and Peter O'Mahony are back and the coach must decide if he can break up his dynamic, if imbalanced, back-row while the back-three is also up for discussion.

Irish Independent

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