Sexton at the centre of a club versus country tug-of-war
Racing Metro disputing the extent of the Irish outhalf’s thumb injury and say he could be ruled out for up to six weeks
Paddy Jackson poses for a picture with young fans during the Ireland squad’s open training session at Newforge Country Club, Belfast. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, Johnny Sexton appears to be in the middle of a club versus country tug-of-war dispute regarding the extent of the thumb ligament injury he sustained at Twickenham last Saturday.
Viewed from this vantage point, yesterday’s declaration by Racing Metro that their prized outhalf will be sidelined for ten days to six weeks – a wildly unclear prognosis – can perhaps be viewed as a fit of pique by the Parisians, with Sexton’s return to fitness assuredly closer to ten than 42 days.
The odds are that, barring any further mishap, Sexton will play Ireland’s penultimate game at home to Italy on Saturday week or, failing that, at the very least he will play against France in the Paris finale on Saturday fortnight.
He was scanned by the Irish medical staff on Sunday and saw a hand specialist before returning to Paris on Monday, with the IRFU last night reiterating their view that he should be fit for the Italian game.
The French club are resigned to being without Sexton at home to Castres this Saturday evening, compounding an injury crisis at outhalf which has already accounted for Jonathan Wisniewski and Juan Martin Hernandez. Racing coach Laurent Labit said yesterday in Paris: “Sexton has damaged ligaments in the thumb and will be unavailable for between 10 days and six weeks.”
This would suggest they had the injury examined as well, and furthermore have perhaps now sown a seed of doubt in Sexton’s mind as to whether he should play against Italy. They clearly don’t want Sexton to play in that match, although under IRB regulations, Sexton will link up with the rest of the Irish squad on Sunday evening, after which it will be the Irish management’s decision as to whether he is fit to play or not.
If the Irish medical prognosis proves true, in tandem with Racing’s more optimistic prognosis, Sexton would be fit by next Wednesday. Yet given this latest spat, it could be that even if he is passed fit then, ala the Samoan game at the start of the November window, Schmidt may decide to rest him for the Italian game before unleashing him against France.
In that scenario, Paddy Jackson looks the likeliest stand-in, given he started against Samoa, has had more Heineken Cup game time than any of his domestic rivals, has been Sexton’s understudy throughout this Championship and as with the two-day camp in Clonmel a fortnight ago, was the resident outhalf for yesterday’s open session at Newforge in Belfast.
All bar Sexton and the injured Peter O’Mahony (bruised hamstring) of the starting XV in Twickenham trained yesterday, with Jackson and Iain Henderson filling the void.
Jack McGrath and Robbie Henshaw were also in attendance, with Henshaw at times filling in for Brian O’Driscoll, who took part in most of the drills and team runs, before Henshaw deputised for Andrew Trimble when the Ulster winger suffered a minor bang on the knee halfway through the 45-minute work-out.
Admittedl y, Ian Madigan had been there on Wednesday, as were Leinster team-mates Marty Moore, Rhys Ruddock and Eoin Reddan, which suggests they are all very much in the equation as well. This might be the game to give Moore his first start, Madigan will at least be on the bench if Sexton is not involved, while Reddan will likely get to state his case for a recall at home to Glasgow on Saturday night. Were O’Mahony either ruled out or rested, Ruddock and Henderson would evidently be vying for the number six jersey.
O’Mahony sounded pretty confident he would be back training early next week, and said the review of last Saturday’s game highlighted the effectiveness of Ireland’s set-piece and that they created opportunities which weren’t converted. “Our phase-play and our breakdown is where we need to look at more after the England game. We need to be more accurate and probably a bit more vicious when it comes to the breakdown.”
Losing out the Triple Crown and a shot at a Grand Slam has been put aside. “It has to be because we are still top of the group. We have put ourselves into a great position to compete for the championship in a couple of weekends’ time so it would be very silly of us to be down in ourselves and moping around. We have to get on with it and have a big three weeks.”
Before half-time in last year’s defeat to Italy, O’Mahony was forced to play on the left wing after injuries to Luke Marshall, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald. “It was strange, alright. Defending outside Drico on a five-mere scrum wasn’t always something I had pictured growing up,” he recalled dryly. “These things happen at times. Sometimes freakish things happen and I ended up on the wing. Luckily he shut that down himself. I was defending about 60 yards of space and you feel very vulnerable out there. You would have to give credit to that 12-13-wing channel defending your line. It is a tough thing to do and that put it in perspective for me.”