Johnny Sexton looks like winning race to be fit for Italy

Outhalf trained yesterday with a light protective covering on his injured thumb

Ireland were training today in Carton House ahead of the match with Italy on Saturday.

Wed, Mar 5, 2014, 01:00

Not for the first time since he relocated to Paris, Johnny Sexton’s well-being remains a recurring theme in the build-up towards Ireland’s selection for their penultimate Six Nations game at home to Italy on Saturday (kick-off 2.30) but all the indications yesterday were that Sexton will play.

Indeed, at this juncture, he seems to have a slightly better chance of starting than Peter O’Mahony.

Assistant coach John Plumtree confirmed that Sexton trained yesterday with a light protective covering on his injured thumb and with no obvious impairment to his catching and passing. That said, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan also ran at outhalf in training as the management keep their options open, with the acid test to come in Thursday’s session when Sexton’s tackling is tested in contact work.

“You’re going to have some grappling in the tackling where you really need that grip,” said Plumtree. “We’ll put him through those tests so we can be sure he can perform his role accurately because I’m sure they’ll come down his channel at some stage so he’s going to have to make those tackles.”

Both Sexton and Joe Schmidt are clearly keen for him to play. “We’ve got two games and they’re two big games. We need all our best players available. It’s no time for resting them now I don’t think. It’s not the right time at all. Joe is going to make those final calls but I’m sure that if Johnny is available he’ll play.”

Reduces elbow room
Indeed, the shot at the title – with the need to win and by as much as possible to thereby extent Ireland’s current 21 point advantage in points differential over England before the latter host Wales on Sunday and then travel to Rome – reduces Schmidt’s elbow room in his stated aim of starting 21 players or so in this championship. Going into the final game in Paris, where they’ve won once in 42 years, Ireland don’t need the additional strain of winning by any more than a point.

Accordingly, Plumtree admitted there may not be any voluntary changes. “Yea, it’s a short competition isn’t it? We’ve got ourselves in a situation where we’re top of the table, albeit by points difference and we’ve got two really tough matches. We’re not taking Italy lightly at all (by) playing players in their first games or anything. If there’s going to be changes I would say it’s going to be forced.

“We want this championship badly and the players want it really badly. You sort of get the feeling that they wish it was Saturday already but fortunately they have to wait. Hopefully by Saturday you’ll see a real aggressive Ireland side that comes out of the changing room and plays a style of rugby that we want them to play.”

Resumed running
Even though O’Mahony resumed running yesterday, Plumtree admitted it was “hard to say” whether the flanker would make Saturday’s game after suffering shoulder and hamstring niggles. “It really is making sure he is 100 per cent fit bearing in mind that we do have a massive game in France as well.”

If not 100 per cent, then Plumtree intimated that Iain Henderson, who replaced O’Mahony for the last 10 minutes at Twickenham, is next in line. “We were really happy with the way he came off the bench. I thought he provided a really nice impact. He hasn’t played a lot at six for Ulster and I’ve been really happy with the way Rhys Ruddock has been going at Leinster, so it’s a tough choice but that’s exactly what we want.”

Having Mike Ross play half an hour for Leinster last Saturday was to keep him ticking over as well as have him work on a few aspects of his game, and for all Marty Moore’s progress, seemingly his first start will come on the summer tour to Argentina.

“We’re really impressed with his development and we’re looking after him at the moment. Hopefully with the tour to Argentina and next year’s growth will be even more which would be fantastic for us.”

Schmidt showed the squad a clip of the France-Italy game when the former had an attacking scrum and froze the frame to ask what happened next, before forwarding to the French scrum being shunted off the ball as a warning that the Italians will come as fully loaded as ever.

“We’ve talked about scrummaging for 10 seconds at least because that ball could get caught up there if the pressure’s on,” admitted Plumtree. “We will be making sure we are prepared to fight in the heat of that battle and it’s how the boys trained today. There will be a lot of big decisions around that area, so we’re hoping Nigel (Owens) will look after that area.”