Sunday 25 February 2018

Jackson closing gap but won't block Sexton return

Johnny Sexton showed no ill effects of his recent layoff during training. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton showed no ill effects of his recent layoff during training. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Not since the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against France have Ireland had this many front-line players available for a Test match.

This week, like that one, Jared Payne is injured but apart from the Ulster star Joe Schmidt has all of his centrally contracted players available for selection according to yesterday's ultra-positive injury bulletin.

Skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy said everyone in the 34-man squad trained and that means Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Andrew Trimble, Peter O'Mahony, Iain Henderson and Conor Murray are ready for action.

Josh van der Flier was ruled out earlier this week, while Ultan Dillane is struggling for form on his return from injury and has been left with Connacht, but the 23-man match-day squad will have a formidable look to it.

Clamour

There are a few selection headaches for Schmidt to consider but, while there is a growing clamour for Paddy Jackson to retain the No 10 shirt after doing well in rounds one and two, it seems unlikely.

For all that Murphy said yesterday that Sexton had no "divine right" to come straight into the team on the back of training yesterday, it would be a massive shock if he wasn't named in the starting XV.

Sexton is set to do a full kicking session today, before training again tomorrow ahead of the team announcement. Assuming his calf holds firm, he'll be in the side. Since Ronan O'Gara retired in 2013, the Leinster star has been out on his own as the pre-eminent No 10.

Starting seven of the last nine Tests has allowed Jackson close the gap, but while his performances have been good and his kicking-stats strong there are intangible elements that the Ulster pivot just can't match.

"Johnny's been there, he's seen it all. He was a Lions winning out-half, he's won three Heineken Cups, he's won a couple of Six Nations, so that experience is invaluable for a player," Murphy said.

"Paddy's still only 25, numbers wise they'd add up pretty well, but it's the bits in between. What makes a really good player? Is it what you see or other areas as well.

"It's probably the case that 'what you see' is very similar, it's probably that Paddy is still trying to learn and get better - which he is - at the bits you can't see. It's communication, the reading of the game, the understanding that at one particular moment of the game, what's the right decision to make.

"That decision could be based on many different reasons; it could be the conditions, the time of the game, what one defender is going to do different to another . . . it's very hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but Johnny's just been in a position where he understands these things a little better than Paddy at the moment, but the gap is closing.

"Johnny understands the game through his time that he has spent with Joe. On the attack side of the game he understands how Joe thinks and he understands what plays we put in place for certain reasons.

"But that is only one part of the game. Once you move outside of the set-piece, maybe the second, third breakdown, after that it's about general play and it's his ability to read general play that makes him really good."

Although he has been plagued with soft-tissue issues, Sexton has played well this season when he has been injury free and has a good record of hitting the ground running.

Pressure

"He knows there's pressure on him to get out there and play," Murphy said. "But when he's out there he's very calm, controlled, communicating really well with guys around him. He's able to pick the right option at the right time, and that's the key - that's the key to the best out-halves out there."

If out-half is less of a selection dilemma for Schmidt, there are others elsewhere.

He must decide if Cian Healy did enough to hold on to the No 1 shirt with his impressive showing in Rome, while Donnacha Ryan is likely to see off Henderson who should take Dillane's bench spot.

Fit-again O'Mahony may be a tempting proposition given his leadership credentials and lineout strength, but it will be tough to break up the combination of CJ Stander, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, while Trimble has a tough task to do likewise in the back-three given Kearney's recovery.

Irish Independent

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