Thursday 27 July 2017

Sexton backed to hit the ground running as Farrell calls for Ireland to bring their 'A-game'

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This week there was no late drama for Rory Best who made his own Captain’s Run unscathed and led a team featuring Johnny Sexton through their final dress-rehearsal at the Aviva Stadium.

Two weeks ago, a stomach bug prevented him from doing the same at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and kept him from winning his 102nd cap a day later, but this time there are no such worries as he comes into the team for Munster’s Niall Scannell at hooker.

Also returning is Johnny Sexton, owner of the most talked about calf in Irish rugby who will start at out-half for his country for the first time since he limped out of the defeat to New Zealand in November.

While Best praised Sexton’s stand-in Paddy Jackson, he conceded that the presence of the experienced Leinster talisman is a lift for his side as they take on France tomorrow.

“Johnny's a world-class No 10 and to have him come back in is great,” the Ulsterman said.

“The way Paddy's performed he's really shown himself as a quality out-half. It's a great dilemma to have as a player's point of view to know you have that cover.

“A few years ago there was probably a fear if Johnny went down we'd be in dire straits, but to have someone like Jacko, a lot his performances have come off the back of learning from Johnny.

“There's competition but everyone helps each other out a bit. To have Johnny back is a big lift, but also to know that Jacko's there as well, that a great reassurance to have.

24 February 2017; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland joins the team photo during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
24 February 2017; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland joins the team photo during the captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

“Even when he stepped back in, he looked fresh and hungry straight away.

“You never have to question his competitive nature, he'll always demand a lot of everyone else but he'll also demand more of himself, and you can see that in training.”

Defence coach Andy Farrell is backing Sexton to bring his usual high standard of play to the party.

“He's got plenty energy hasn't he, but if you look at Paddy's performance last week so did he,” he said.

“The No 10 has got such a responsibility to run the attack, but if you can show big commitment in defence as well, it speaks volumes for them as a person.

“Paddy did that against Italy, definitely, led the line speed and the energy.

“It's what Johnny brings week to week and he's certainly excited about getting amongst it.

“You can only go off what we've done over the competition in the last couple of games.

“The first half against Scotland wasn't good enough.

“The second-half I thought we got a lot of ball back from our defence.

“You play what's in front of you and in the Italian game we forced a lot of errors and got a lot of turnover ball from that.

“We're happy with the progress in the second half and the Italy game.

“But tomorrow's a different kettle of fish, we've got to bring our A-game.”

The return of Sexton should allow Ireland to hit the heights they reached in the autumn, but Best re-iterated Joe Schmidt’s assertion that the Six Nations is a different, more difficult beast.

“We have to get to at least that,” he said of the level they hit in November.

“This is a different competition, both teams have played two, won one, lost one. So both teams have their backs against the wall a little bit.

“When you're playing the autumn internationals you want to win and it's important to win, but now we're in a competition, and while you want to win, you also feel you've got to win it.

“So there's pressure that comes with that, and we know we have to respond.

“And we know we have to produce a performance that I believe has to exceed the one we produced in Chicago.

“The French are definitely a team that you've got to fear in terms of their rugby ability. Probably when I first came into the squad it was a real rarity that we'd beat them.

“Obviously now we've won in some fairly crucial games in recent years, but they swung the momentum back last year in getting the win.

“We play the French teams a lot more often now, there are more French teams in Europe than ever, so people are a bit more used to playing them.

“We know them a lot better than we used to, but I just think there's a different mindset to playing for Ireland now than there was 12 years ago.

“We firmly believe we can beat anyone on our day. Over the last two to three years we've realised what consistency is, and it's not just consistency of performance on the pitch.

“That comes from the consistency of our preparation throughout the week.

“That's something that we've really driven hard, probably since Joe came in.

“We always talked about wanting to be a consistent team, but we probably didn't know how to get there. Now we feel do.”

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