Schmidt faces nervy wait as Sexton set to enter battle with Racing
JOE SCHMIDT faces an anxious wait over the weekend after confirming that Jonathan Sexton will play for Racing Metro against Toulouse on Saturday, eight days before the Six Nations kick-off against Scotland.
Schmidt confirmed that Keith Earls would miss at least the opening two games against the Scots and Wales after he suffered a knee injury last weekend, but he is confident Gordon D'Arcy can shake off the injury he suffered in Leinster's win over the Ospreys on Friday.
The Ireland coach, who revealed that he is targeting a top-two finish in his first Six Nations, is today likely to name a number of established internationals recovering from injury in the Wolfhounds side who play England Saxons on Saturday in order to build up their game time.
However, while events in Kingsholm will be his main focus, the New Zealander will keep one eye on the Stade de France, where Sexton is expected to lead the Racing back line.
The fly-half flew back to Paris last night after four days in camp to begin preparations for the Top 14 clash, although Schmidt says he is in far better shape than in November.
He suffered a hip injury when he reported for Ireland duty ahead of the autumn Tests but travelled back to France to sit on the bench for Racing's game in Biarritz. He was then left out of the first Test against Samoa and did not last 80 minutes against Australia or New Zealand.
With the Ireland coach still "hopeful", rather than confident, of Leinster retaining the services of Jamie Heaslip next season, he stressed the importance of keeping his best players with the home provinces, adding that 50-50 decisions between a player plying his trade abroad and a home-based rival will go the way of the provincial man.
With Sexton the undisputed first-choice out-half for club and country, the New Zealander has little choice but to watch on from afar and hope the former Leinster man does not suffer an injury.
"He's a lot fresher, he didn't play last weekend down in the swamp at Clermont, which I've never seen before. So he was a lot fresher. I think he's in really good shape for the Six Nations," Schmidt said.
"Certainly, if Racing had still been in (contention in) the Heineken Cup he'd have played last weekend and if they'd been playing Toulouse this week he'd have played again. The fact that they were out of the Heineken Cup meant that they didn't require Johnny to play and hopefully, touch wood, there's no injury in Toulouse and he'll be ready to go for Scotland."
Schmidt says he has not discussed Heaslip's future with his vice-captain, who is mulling over offers from Toulon and the IRFU, and is expected to decide on his next step in the next 48 hours.
Asked if he was confident the No 8 (above) would remain, Schmidt said: "I have intentionally not spoken to Jamie about it at all in camp over the last two days and he hasn't mentioned it to me either. I'd be hopeful."
And he said that players who stay in Ireland have a better chance of being selected for his squad after Keith Earls, Paul O'Connell and Sean O'Brien signed IRFU deals in the last week.
"The only exile we really have in the squad is Johnny; even Robin Copeland (Cardiff Blues) is coming back to Munster to play in Ireland, so I think it does make it easier for us to manage a player," he said.
"There are a couple of guys who are playing well overseas, but if it is a 50-50 decision, you tend to go for the guy that you have better access to and are more able to manage – it just makes sense to do that."