Johnny Sexton likely to be targeted again by France

Joe Schmidt hopes new coach Jacques Brunel will not resort to usual Les Bleus tactics

Joe Schmidt and Keith Earls speak to the press at the Irish Rugby Squad training centre in Carton House ahead of Saturday’s Six Nations opener against France. Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

Small mercies, but Johnny Sexton can expect the Parisian treatment visited upon him in 2014 and 2016.

No Mathieu Bastareaud. Suspended for a homophobic slur. No Yoann Maestri. Bizarrely, overlooked by Jacques Brunel, same as Louis Picamoles.

No Jaco Peyper either. The South African official who sped up rule changes for high tackling by seeing no foul when the All Blacks came to Dublin in November 2016.

Some things remain the same in this fixture. Rough up Ireland’s Napoleon and France know they can squeeze the life out of Ireland.

Granted, the 2018 version of Tadhg Furlong is a different scrummager to the creaking kid who struggled under the Ireland posts in 2016.

Before the killer try in a 10-9 defeat, a battered Sexton had been replaced by Ian Madigan (Joey Carbery brings less assurance off the kicking tee but the potential to spark at the Stade de France like he did before a Fijian prop fractured him in November).

France, to have any chance, must remove Sexton early on. There is a template – as shown by Bastareaud’s raw power forcing him off in the Six Nations decider four years past – with Maestri taking matters into his own elbow after 13 minutes in 2016.

Attacking

Ireland were attacking on the French 10-metre line when Sexton fed Robbie Henshaw and did his usual tracking of play only to be felled by the Toulouse lock blatantly changing course to bump him.

Sexton rose to make it 3-0.

The rough treatment continued, and is expected to recommence for the former Racing 92 stand-off under spring showers.

“I hope not,” said Joe Schmidt. “It doesn’t need to be part of the game. Johnny is a really tough competitor. He will take whatever is fairly doled out. When it comes off the ball, I don’t think it needs to be part of the game. It hasn’t been part of the teams I’ve seen Jacques coach in the past so I’d hope that it is not.”

Peyper’s judgment is replaced by Nigel Owens with Wayne Barnes an eagle-eyed disciplinarian on the touch line and Rowan Kitt on TMO duty in the gantry.

“I think it’s been ramped up since two years ago,” Schmidt said of player protection. “Obviously it is not the same referee. We would hope with the experience of referee we have got it won’t even enter into the fray. That would be a hope.”

It cuts both ways. Guaranteed: CJ Stander will torpedo into 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert.

“Johnny is a big boy,” said Stander. “He can look after himself. He has shown that over the last few years. Playing against and with him, he looks after himself. As a collective we are going to work hard to look after each other.”

Physical game

It’s put to Stander that Sexton can never be considered a rugby quarterback as he seeks to look after himself too much, almost craves confrontation as motivational fuel.

“He plays a physical game, always puts his body on the line, I respect him for it. For us to play around him and maybe take the workload off him . . . we need to carry or run a good line for him.”

Josh van der Flier is hardly an enforcer but the red capped openside of 30-plus tackles a game will surely seek to punish Jalibert as much as 23-year-old Yacouba Camara will hunt Sexton.

“Outhalves are normally quite confident so I’m sure he’ll be okay,” shrugged van der Flier. “I had a look at him, really dangerous, really quick feet, good distributor of the ball. Yeah, he must be nervous and excited.”

But fresh meat, no?

“You don’t want to give them an easy game. Put pressure on their kicks. I suppose, traditionally [a flanker can get an outhalf] off the back of a lineout. We’ll try to put as much pressure on him as we can. Try and force them to make mistakes.”

Fresh and tough meat cuts up with enough pressure.

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