Wednesday was a day of relief for Johnny Sexton. Now that the dead leg which forced his withdrawal in the 69th minute of Ireland’s 34-10 win away to Wales last Saturday was fully healed, the Irish captain is on course to lead Ireland out against the reigning Grand Slam champions in Saturday’s crunch round two game of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 2.15pm). He has missed the last two meetings with France.
“The last two Wednesdays before France over the past two fixtures I’ve ended up pulling out, so to get through today is great,” he said with a wry grin. “Hopefully I can get through today without any hiccups.”
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Last year’s corresponding second round match felt like a title decider then and the final table confirmed as much, and whether or not that proves to be the case this year its billing is even more grand exactly a year on.
“It feels like a huge game,” agreed Sexton, who then went further. “It is a huge game, there’s no point in saying anything otherwise. You can’t just come in here and say ‘it’s just another game’ because it’s not. It’s one we’ve waited a long time for and I’ve read that they want this test; to come to the Aviva and try and overturn us.
“It’s a huge game.”
While watching France beat Italy when below par last Sunday, Sexton admitted that part of him thought that was a pity, on the premise that Les Bleus assuredly will play a good deal better next Saturday.
“But look, we got to see what France are like when they are tested - some good things from that. We knew this game, no matter what happened in the first game, for us or for them, was a stand-alone game come Saturday.
“It’s one of those one-off, big games. We know they are going to be big consequences in terms of the rest of the tournament, win or lose. We’re really focused on this game and it’s good to be able to say that.
“We were honest when we said we wanted to concentrate fully on Wales and that’s exactly what we did last week. A decent performance, especially the first 30 was excellent. We just dropped off a little.
“So, good lessons in it for us as well.”
In any event, Sexton is braced for a French side at full throttle, or as he put it: “The usual - what we’ve seen over the past few year because they’ve had outstanding success with 14 games on the bounce unbeaten.
“Shaun Edwards isn’t the head coach but a lot of what he did with Wales, you can see it all over the team; they kick long, real aggressive defence with some outstanding individuals littered through e team. They are the full package really, that’s the message, and we are going to have to be at our very best to get a win.”
Whereas Ireland have beaten all the other tier one countries in the last few years, the exception is France, who have recorded three successive Six Nations wins over Andy Farrell’s side.
“I’m not sure, each game was different,” responded Sexton when asked why this was so. “Two were in Covid. Last year was away in a pivotal atmosphere on a day we could have pipped them at the end. There wasn’t too much between us in the latest encounter.
“They can score out of nothing. In a few of those games - the first one away during Covid we had opportunities five metres out from their line _-we weren’t clinical enough and we didn’t take out chances.
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“In Test match rugby, the performance can be skewed if you’re clinical; score a few tries versus creating 10 and don’t take any, you’re in turmoil.
“That’s where we are after the Welsh game. We were very clinical but we did plenty wrong. That’s where we are after the weekend.”
In times past Irish sides would have routinely assumed the underdog status in this fixture before the usual pre-match desire to make the opponents favourites. So it is that Romain Ntamack has readily given Ireland the mantle of favouritism next Saturday, something that long since ceased to matter to this Irish team one way or the other.
“I don’t really mind,” said Sexton when informed of his counterpart’s comments.
“The favourites tag is not something we mention internally. Being number one in the world, the public or the press will do it or the opposition will, but it comes down to the performance on the day.
“If we’re favourites, we’re favourites. It doesn’t really bother me if that’s what he [Ntamack] says.”