Johnny Sexton reports clean bill of health ahead of Italy encounter

Iain Henderson ruled out of game after testing positive for Covid-19

Irish captain Johnny Sexton has confirmed that he returned to full training a week ago and is fit and ready for Ireland's Six Nations game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday (kick-off 3pm).

Sexton missed Ireland’s 30-24 defeat by France in Paris last Saturday week due to a hamstring injury he sustained in training three days beforehand, but looks set to lead Ireland against the Italians.

“I trained fully at the back end of last week and then did a day with the physios the day we played the under-20s, and then trained fully again today and yesterday, so good to go thankfully,” Sexton told the media on Wednesday.

The Irish outhalf confirmed that he tweaked his hamstring three days before the game in Stade de France and admitted that at the age of 36 he’s had to adapt his training schedule.

“Of course. It’s something that as an older athlete or rugby player you need to look after yourself better. I don’t think I could have done much different or better in terms of my preparation or whatever. It was one of those things.

“Maybe I was carrying a knock from the Wales game that I was training with and could have had a bearing, but you just don’t know for sure. Anyway, it was a minor enough thing and I bounced back from it. I trained at the back end of last week and fully today and got some kicking done as well back end of last week and this week. In a good place now and fit for selection.”

Sexton travelled with the squad to Paris and was a spectator in the stands, his frustration compounded by the scale of the encounter and the possibility that he was missing out on a last Six Nations game in Paris. Needless to say, he found it a hard watch.

“Yeah, of course. I’m not the best spectator and this game was particularly tough. I suppose it was a game I almost had in my head for the last two years, based on what happened there previously and I thought that I was in a great place to go and put that to bed and put those demons to bed. Look, bad timing to pick up the small injury that I did, but there was some great learnings for the team in there, but it was definitely tough to watch, yeah.”

Sexton also praised Joey Carbery’s performance in the Stade de France.

“I thought he did well. To get called in late, it’s always tougher. I suppose he would have been preparing the same anyway, knowing him. He’s a very good professional and always does his prep right. So I don’t think it [the late change] would have affected him too much.

“But look, he was composed on the day and did well, and it’s good for him, [after] having a tough time with injuries to get back. He’s played a few games now in the summer and then Argentina and France, so he’s getting those games in the international arena under his belt and he’ll only be much better for it.”

Although the two have had their moments in Munster-Leinster games, Sexton’s rivalry with Carbery doesn’t appear to have quite the edge which was the case when he was competing with Ronan O’Gara for the Irish 10 jersey, albeit the two have become good friends since.

"I'm well used to competition," said Sexton. "Like, I've had it early doors, whether it was with Ronan and Felipe with Ireland and at Leinster and when you have the jersey there is always someone else that you are competing with over the years like Ian Madigan, Ian McKinley, Paddy Jackson or Joey obviously.

“Joey has been around a long time now. He is 26 now so I have been used to it for the last five years really. It’s nothing new. Nothing has changed for me. What’s important for me is that I prepare as best I can. I can’t worry too much about what other people are doing. You’ve got to concentrate on yourself and that’s what I have always tried to do.

“Of course I respect all the other 10s at Leinster. I have got great competition with the other three guys there and so it is nothing new. You have to make sure you are fit and firing when you do get the chance to play.”

Sexton maintained the key to performing well on Sunday was to treat Italy with respect, regardless of their results in the Six Nations over the last five years, although he has detected an improvement under new coach Kieran Crowley.

“I have always been really impressed with any team that I’ve played against when Kieran Crowley was coach: Treviso, Canada in the previous World Cup and then Italy. You can see some of the improvements they have made already in the first two games.

“It’s clear they are in a little bit of transition as is the case every time you bring in a new coach. It takes time to bed down ideas and get everyone to buy into them and be good at them so there is a little bit of that but I see big improvements to where they were last year. We’re very mindful of some of the individuals in their team and we’re giving them the respect they deserve.”

Ulster secondrow Iain Henderson will miss the Italy game after testing positive for Covid-19 during routine testing upon arrival back to Ireland camp on Monday evening.

Henderson will complete a period of isolation at home and an IRFU statement said the player is “well”, while no other players tested positive during the round of testing.