Thursday 22 March 2018

O'Connell ready for Italy challenge as Sexton is cleared

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ireland's squad for their meeting with France next week is looking stronger and stronger, but Paul O'Connell is refusing to look past today's opening clash with Italy at the Stadio Olimpico.

The return of Johnny Sexton, who has been cleared to take to the Aviva Stadium field next Saturday after meeting with his neurologist in Paris on Thursday, will come as a welcome boost, along with the expected availability of Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan and Cian Healy.

But the captain has been on message since well before the tournament, saying today's battle against the Azzurri is the only thing on his or the squad's mind.

They may be without a host of influential players and lack experience in key areas, but O'Connell believes Ireland are ready to begin their title defence this afternoon.

"I do feel we're ready, I think certainly there is an element of the unknown in terms of we are missing a bit of experience and you can't get away from that," he conceded.

"All you can do is prepare to the best of your ability and that's a real strength of Joe's, in terms of preparing people to play.


"But, yeah. We are ready. The lads who are not here have been around camp a lot - Jamie, Johnny, Reddser - they have been involved and had plenty to say in the build-up, and I must say the build-up has been good.

"It's been a good time together, a clear focus on what we've been trying to do, there's a good bit of confidence coming through from November as well and we've kind of been expecting what's coming tomorrow.

"Italy are at their best here in Rome and at their best in the first game of the championship. So we know it's going to be an incredibly tough game.

"There's an acceptance and a realisation of how tough the way it's going to be for us and I think preparation has gone as well as can be expected."

Ireland trained in the rain at the Stadio Olimpico yesterday afternoon, but conditions are set to improve for today's clash.

And, while Sexton's return is imminent, O'Connell backed his Munster team-mate Ian Keatley to thrive in his absence.

"He's obviously thrilled, but he put the head down fairly quickly and started preparing," he said.

"He's fairly experienced, he's handled it pretty well, but tomorrow is the day to do it. It should be irrelevant who's picked, they way we prepare - the way we've trained over the last 18 months, guys are ready to step in and step out.

"It would be great if we made some progression from the autumn."

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