Sexton’s punishing schedule a matter of concern to Schmidt
Since May 21st last, he has played 38 games for Leinster, the Lions, Racing Metro and Ireland
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton: will be in action on eight consecutive weekends should he play this coming Saturday for Racing Metro and then in Ireland’s final two Six Nations’ games. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Helpfully, Ireland have a two-week respite after the Twickenham bruiser before their concluding two games at home to Italy and away to France.
That break should help Peter O’Mahony’s bruised hamstring to clear up – as well as Brian O’Driscoll’s cramped calf.
Wild horses wouldn’t keep O’Driscoll away from his last home Test against Italy on Saturday week, when he will also eclipse George Gregan as the world’s most capped player of all time when playing his 140th Test. He is expected to resume training today in any case.
As was the case last November, most of the fretting will concern the one Irish player who may not have a rest this weekend, namely Johnny Sexton.
Plus ça change . The Irish management hope to have more information on Sexton following their scans on his thumb injury tomorrow. But, once again, Schmidt lamented his outhalf’s return to Paris this week and the possibility of him being called into action for Racing Metro’s hugely significant Top 14 match at home to Castres on Saturday.
Having lost 25-9 away to Bordeaux last Saturday, Racing sit eighth, two points and two places outside the play-offs and European Cup qualification, with just six games remaining.
Ronan O’Gara, an assistant coach at Racing, has already expressed the view that it would be “impossible” for Sexton to play on eight consecutive weekends, which would be the consequence of him playing this coming Saturday and Ireland’s final two Six Nations’ games.
“I wouldn’t say it rules him out,” said Schmidt in relation to the Italy game, “but it forces a decision on us depending on how he comes out of the game: whether he is off the bench or whether he starts the game.”
Juan Martin Hernandez had rolled back the years in the 19-all draw away to Perpignan three weeks ago when restored to his favoured number ‘10’, although illness has sidelined him for the last two weeks.
With Jonathan Wisniewski a long-term absentee, Bengamin Dambielle started the 18-8 home win over Bayonne a fortnight ago (when Sexton was his 56th minute replacement) and played the full 80 in the defeat at Bordeaux. “Get well soon Juan” is Schmidt’s fervent message, along with a hope that they do right by Sexton.
“I would be delighted if he (Hernandez) was fully fit this week and that would certainly alleviate some of the stress on Johnny, particularly if he can get a bit of time for that thumb injury not to be aggravated. I think it will be fine if it is not aggravated but if it is then those sort of things can hang around for a little while and it does make it a bit more difficult.”
Tellingly, at this point last year Sexton had played 16 games in total for Leinster and Ireland, having torn his hamstring in round two against England. This season he has played 25 games – 20 for his club (16 starting) and five for his country. Put another way, since May 21st last, he has played a whopping 38 games for Leinster, the Lions, Racing Metro and Ireland, with an off-season of three weeks during which he was married.
Hence, as at the start of the November window against Samoa, the possibility of Sexton playing again this Saturday allied to his thumb problem could yet compel Schmidt to rest him against Italy. It will also remind Irish management and IRFU alike of their relief in keeping a host of other front-liners at home next season and beyond.
“It certainly doesn’t help,” said Schmidt of Sexton’s situation, given “the margins were incredibly fine” at Twickenham. “Johnny was a little bit frustrated with his own game because he has incredibly high standards,” he added, citing “a couple of the kick-offs that didn’t go to the right place and a couple of kicks that didn’t go to the right place.” Again Sexton’s defending and, save for one blemish, passing were very good.
The scope for change is somewhat restricted in that resting any players against Italy would mean anyone recalled for the French finale would be playing their first game in three weeks.
There will invariably be huge emotional attachment to O’Driscoll’s home Test farewell next week but, given the man involved, Schmidt doesn’t envisage this being a distraction.
“What Brian O’Driscoll has done nobody else in Test rugby has ever done. . . He will keep the emotion in check and that will allow the players around him to do the same. He is the consummate professional.”