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Sexton out to reclaim Irish spot

He's back and he means business -- Ireland's current out-half Jonathan Sexton is one or two great performances away from returning to the driving seat he occupied until a freak accident in the last play of the November win over World Champions South Africa ruled him out of action for the past six weeks.

In that time Ronan O'Gara has marshalled Munster to two tremendous wins against French champions Perpignan in the Heineken Cup, shooting 24 points at Thomond Park and pulling the strings for a bonus-point revelation at Stade Aimé Giral.

Subsequent to that, O'Gara took just 40 minutes to destroy Connacht in the Magners League over Christmas before the big freeze set in. It was as much as he could do to convince Declan Kidney of his worthiness for inclusion against Italy in three weeks.

This week, O'Gara spoke of the conflict at work between his solid all-round game and his wayward place-kicking. From there, he has made a gradual return to the sort of form that has always been good enough to guarantee him the number 10 jersey for Ireland.

Was he worried at his early glitches? "That's when you trust other people's judgments too, and I think that's where Tony (McGahan, Munster coach) has been very good. I've been playing well but I haven't been kicking well at times this season," he said.

"People who know their rugby generally separate the two of them, but the person on the street believes that you're not playing well if you're not kicking well.

"It's very important to me to have the whole package as well, and that's been the reason why I have been living the dream for 10 years."

While Ireland's record-breaking out-half was busy finding his form on the field, Sexton was working his way back towards full-fitness. He will start for Leinster against Brive tomorrow evening in what amounts to one of two chances to reassure Kidney of his form and fitness.

"I have to do what I can do. I have to play my game. I have to pass well, kick well, tackle well and control the backline. I have to not try to do too much too soon," said Sexton.

The ongoing battle between Sexton and a rejuvenated O'Gara for Kidney's trust in the Six Nations is the most interesting individual aspect of the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup.



COMPELLING

St Mary's College graduate Sexton has to recapture the form that made him a compelling choice ahead of O'Gara in November. He has had to endure time in recovery, amounting to six long weeks, from breaking a metacarpal bone in his left hand.

"It hasn't been easy. I am looking forward to getting back to games, getting out of the weights room and stopping doing fitness," issued Sexton.

It looked as though his time on the sideline was coming to an end last week until Leinster had to concede to arctic weather conditions that made their Magners League outing with leaders Glasgow Warriors an impossibility.

"It was frustrating having the game called off. Obviously, it has also been frustrating not having played for five or six weeks," he said.

True to form, he noticed the silver lining in this snow-filled cloud: "It did give me another week to get back working with the ball and to get back playing with the lads.

"At the start of last week I felt rusty at best. Now I feel more confident going into this game. The extra week has probably done me good".

This is a refreshing attitude for a young man not always known for his patience. The close work with sports psychologist Enda McNulty, the former Armagh All-Ireland winning footballer, has imbued a sense of optimism.

"There was a time when I would be eaten up by a bad performance or by an injury. I would stay awake all night turning it over in my head," stated Sexton.

"I have learned to deal better with situations like that, trusting in the advice I am given and waiting for the chance to show what I can do on the pitch".

The one-game-at-a-time mantra has served him well. It would be oh so easy to take a peek ahead to the Six Nations around the corner and get caught up in the hype that surrounds the best international competition in the world, outside the World Cup.

Sexton must work in the now -- deliver today and tomorrow will take care of itself. Brive will bring an altered confidence to the RDS in the Heineken Cup tomorrow. They will look to exploit any weaknesses.

"We've had four full-contact sessions, two last week and another two this week. The more of them I get the more comfortable I feel about my hand. I am delighted with the way it has healed up.

"I felt after four weeks I could have played. I was dying to get out there and play. The doctors said there was no point. If I got another bang, I might need an operation. It was best to leave it (training). I am glad I did in hindsight because it is 100pc now".

While Sexton's body is there, he is short of match practice. He has to return to the top of his game within the next week -- or else O'Gara will step right back into the position that was once solely his preserve.


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