Thursday 18 January 2018

Sexton injury comes at perfect time for Ireland

Out-half Johnny Sexton remains the key player in Joe Schmidt's plans for Ireland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Out-half Johnny Sexton remains the key player in Joe Schmidt's plans for Ireland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Last season, Joe Schmidt tuned into every one of Johnny Sexton's games for Racing Metro so it's likely the Ireland coach's antennae was buzzing pretty quickly as he watched his fly-half potter off after 50 minutes of Saturday's Top 14 win over Toulon.

Having endured the frustration of the playmaker reporting for duty "flat" last November after playing 13 games in 13 consecutive weeks and opting to rest him for the opening Test against Samoa, the words deja and vu probably entered the equation.

By yesterday, however, things were looking all the brighter for the Ireland coach whose most important player will have four-to-six weeks rest before returning to action a month out from the autumn internationals where he should just be hitting the right pitch.

While the player himself has to put up with the pain and discomfort of a fractured jaw, his international coach has been saved a headache.

Sexton will be frustrated about missing a host of Top 14 games and faces a race to be fit for his club's opening European clash with Northampton Saints in Paris, but the scenario for Ireland is much more positive.

Racing's recruitment of Springbok Johan Goosen has eased the burden on the Irishman somewhat, but he remains pivotal to their efforts and his loss is a big blow.

However, part of the reason Schmidt has worked so hard to bring Sexton back to Ireland next season is to wrap his star man in cotton wool.


In the Irish system, the coach and the conditioning staff will monitor their fly-half's fitness from Lansdowne Road and withdraw him when they need to, the control is everything.

Over in Paris, however, he is beyond their grasp and they must watch on nervously every time he takes the field.

A broken jaw won't cause Schmidt too many sleepless nights, but Sexton's injury profile since moving to France must be somewhat concerning for everyone in Irish rugby.

After reporting for duty under par in November, he picked up a hamstring injury before the Six Nations, injured his hand during the tournament and suffered concussions playing against France and Argentina.

The 29-year-old still managed to be available for all nine Tests after sitting out the Samoa game and his health is of paramount importance to Ireland's chance of building on their success last season.

Yesterday, Leinster coach Matt O'Connor could afford a chuckle as he joked about Sexton not being able to talk to anyone because his mouth is wired up.

Next season, the fly-half's health will be his problem and he is already clued in to the player's welfare despite the fact that his arrival back at UCD is 12 months away.

The coach remained as coy as he could about bringing the "world class" player back, while Shane Jennings was clear on the fact that the Lion would be welcomed back to the dressing-room with open arms.

As Brian O'Driscoll began life after rugby with his first television broadcast last night, Ireland will be even more reliant on their No10 this season.

Assuming there are no further complications with his jaw, his freshness will be crucial as Schmidt looks to take his side to the next level by claiming a major scalp.

The All Blacks may have been allowed off the hook last year, but if Ireland are to achieve their goal of a World Cup semi-final and beyond next September beating South Africa and Australia would be a good place to start.

Despite using a host of new faces in Argentina last summer, the spine of Schmidt's preferred starting XV was clear over the course of the season and Sexton is key to everything that happens behind the scrum.

While the notion that his weariness contributed to the missed kick that allowed New Zealand stay in the game on that fateful evening last November, having a fresher Sexton would undoubtedly help Ireland's cause in this World Cup year.

Seeing him helped off would have caused some worry for Schmidt, but that has dissipated with the news as a negative became a positive for Ireland's cause.

Irish Independent

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