Sexton 'sharp and focused' as he prepares to return
Ireland skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy says Johnny Sexton is ready to face France on Saturday as his 12-week lay-off comes to an end.
The Racing Metro out-half trained fully on Monday and again yesterday and is expected to be handed the No 10 jersey for the St Valentine's Day showdown by Joe Schmidt.
Sexton last played when Ireland defeated Australia on November 22, but suffered concussion in a clash of heads with Rob Kearney in the 77th minute. That was his fourth head injury in 12 months and led to a French neurologist standing him down in order to recover fully.
In that time, the 29-year-old has not engaged in contact training, but has been able to step in alongside his team-mates during team runs and non-contact drills. He has also been able to keep his kicking practice ticking over.
He has been in Ireland camp for two and a half weeks working under Schmidt's supervision and Murphy believes his charge is as ready as he'll ever be.
"He looks very sharp for a guy who has been out for a while and that comes down to the fact that, although he was out, he was able to train and do a lot of non-contact stuff. He doesn't look like he's been away for three months," the former Greystones out-half said.
"He seems very, very focused as he always does at this time of the year. He's massively up for it. I haven't asked him, but he seems to be in a good place."
Murphy does not believe that Sexton not having kicked in front of a live audience in 12 weeks will have an effect.
"I don't think it will. He's done it for a very long time now, he's been training and he's kicked very well this week," he explained.
"It's a slight bit different, going in for your first match back in the international arena, but it's a kick like any other kick and he just needs to focus on the process. If he does that, he'll be fine."
What the Leinster-bound fly-half does bring to the table this week is a drive to increase standards on the training pitch at Carton House.
"I suppose there's someone bitching on the training pitch again," Murphy said with a smile. "He has been driving the lads, driving himself in fairness.
"It's the subtle touches that he has that make him that little bit special. He has massive confidence in his own ability - today we trained and the intensity in the session probably went up a bit from where it was last week.
"That wasn't only Johnny, everyone was a bit more focused and probably looking for a bigger challenge in France."
Standing opposite Sexton on Saturday will be Clermont Auvergne fly-half Camille Lopez, who scored all of France's points in their sluggish win over Scotland last weekend.
The former Perpignan pivot has impressed since taking over the No 10 shirt from Remi Tales this season, adding more structure to Philippe Saint-Andre's side and bringing a consistent ability to hit the target with him.
"He's a really good player. He looks very confident, he's got time on the ball, which all good players do," Murphy said.
"He's got a good kicking game, he's able to pass and able to run and he's a decent enough defender. So he's a very rounded 10 and I think he'll make France better because they've been searching for someone to play the game like he does.
"So it's going to be a massive test for us at the weekend; we haven't won in the Aviva against them before so it's one we want to put right this week.
"Their structure looks a little better, he floats in around the back and links quite well, especially from counter-attack stuff when the ball moves towards the middle, you can see him floating in and deciding where he's going to go late and he floats in and has the ability to put the balls in the 15-metre channels.
"So it's about making sure we stay connected and that we've got good line-speed on him and try and cut down those options. That will be a key thing this week."
Murphy's remit includes increasing the skill-levels in the Ireland ranks after last week's sloppy start, although he is not too concerned.
"It's just a case that guys coming back together hadn't played together for a while. Sometimes it takes a game to get back to speed," he said.