Sexton sharpens Ireland’s edge on return to training
Ireland will look to outhalf for inspiration as they aim for first win at Aviva over France
Johnny Sexton brings presence and gravitas, and by all accounts his mustard-keen, sometimes tetchy, persona has already changed the dynamic in training this week.
“I suppose there’s someone bitching on the training pitch again,” said Richie Murphy with a knowing smile at the team’s Carton House base yesterday, Ireland’s kicking coach having also worked with Sexton at Leinster for many years.
“He’s been driving the lads, driving himself in fairness. It’s the subtle touches that he has that make him that little bit special. He has massive confidence in his own ability. Today we trained and the intensity in the session probably went up a bit from where it was last week. That wasn’t only Johnny. Everyone was a bit more focused and probably looking for a bigger challenge in France. ”
As was the case on Monday, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan and Dave Kearney apparently all took a full part in training, the exception being Rory Best, who continued his return-to-play protocols pending further testing this evening.
Sexton meanwhile, “took full contact”, according to Murphy.
Massively up for it
This week’s scenario is not unlike Sexton’s first full start under Schmidt at Leinster in the 2010-11 season. That start was delayed until the opening Heineken Cup match – though admittedly a week after a 25-minute cameo against Munster – and Sexton steered Leinster to a 38-22 win over Racing Metro. Given the degree of trust which has been built up in the last four-and-a-half seasons between Sexton and Schmidt, and the improvement he will bring as Ireland’s most important player, there seems little doubt that Ireland’s leading try and points scorer in last season’s winning campaign will reclaim the number 10 jersey.
This will be Sexton’s first game since suffering a third concussion in a year against Australia last November, having been given the all-clear last week by the Parisian neurologist, Dr Jean-François Cherman, who prescribed a 12-week recuperation.
Nor does Murphy envisage place-kicking being a problem for Sexton.
“He’s obviously done it for a very long time now, he’s been training and he’s kicked very well this week. It’s a slight bit different, going in for your first match back in the international arena, but it’s a kick like any other kick and he just needs to focus on the process and, if he does that, he’ll be fine.”
In his absence last Saturday, Murphy believes Ireland’s stock at outhalf has been strengthened. “Johnny up to now has been sort of the number one with two guys behind him, Ian Madigan and Paddy [Jackson], but I thought Ian Keatley did well at the weekend. He had a couple of shaky moments early but he recovered really, really well and the more the game went on, the more comfortable he became.
“So I think we’re in a reasonably good place. We’ve got a couple of younger guys coming up, Ross Byrne at under-20s is quite a good player as well.”
Murphy has a certain respect for France’s find at outhalf, Camille Lopez, a fellow left-footer (“there should be more of them” quipped Murphy), whose five penalties guided France to their 15-8 win over Scotland in Paris last Saturday.
Searching “I think he’s a really good player. He looks very confident, he’s got time on the ball, which all good players do.
“He’s got a good kicking game, he’s able to pass and able to run and he’s a decent enough defender. So he’s a very rounded No 10 and I think he’ll make France better because they’ve been searching for someone to play the game like he does.
“So it’s going to be a massive test for us at the weekend, and we haven’t won in the Aviva against them before, so it’s one we want to put right this week.”