Johnny Sexton back at 10 as Ireland announce starting XV

Joe Schmidt’s team are looking for second Six Nations win against France on Saturday

So, Johnny Sexton will play rugby for the first time since pulling up after 19 minutes in Castres last month.

There are shades of Sexton's 2015 return from a three month hiatus, when Ireland coach Joe Schmidt dropped him into a brutal test match against France in Dublin. Ireland won that game thanks to the contributions of the bloodied St Mary's outhalf.

“We know it is going to be physical,” said Schmidt. “Two years ago Johnny came back in against the French after 12 weeks and got some fairly physical impacts and I thought he was super.

“Part of the decision making is on what a guy has done in the past.


“We are confident and I think Johnny is confident and that’s the most important thing.”

Yet again, Sexton has struggled to put a run of games together this season. Having recovered from shoulder surgery last summer, the 31 year-old sustained hamstring tears, in both legs, which curtailed his minutes against New Zealand in November.

The latest problem, following a sustained period rehabbing in Santry Sports clinic, has been with his calf.

Paddy Jackson has shown himself to be a more than capable test match outhalf in Sexton’s enforced absence.

“It was a call like any other, we debated it,” said Schmidt. “Based on how things have gone in the past we will probably see both players, in some positions, at some stage of the game.

“Fitness has never really been an issue for Johnny. It is just making sure he is fully fit. And he is. He trained well today and on Tuesday.

“He takes a fair bit of responsibility. He is obviously a leader within the team but I think that is something that Paddy has started to develop as well.

“Paddy took (the decision) with a smile and said ‘I’ll be ready when you need me off the bench.’”

On Joey Carbery’s selection at fullback for Leinster against the Dragons, Schmidt said: “They have to do what’s best for them during this period. I don’t have any influence, and I don’t try to influence the provincial selections. It’s just great that Joey is back playing.”

And, regarding outhalves, Ian Madigan’s situation in Bordeaux-Bégles was brought up: “He is currently contracted to Bordeaux and when you are contracted you’ve sold your rugby skills to a particular place for a given period of time.

“I know Ian will honour that as long as they hold him to it. Until something happens we won’t push any boundaries and that will really be led by Ian himself.”

Madigan stated this week that he is interested in returning to Ireland.

Conor Murray and Rob Kearney (bicep) are also named in the Ireland XV despite reduced training in the past fortnight.

Should Kearney struggle again, and he has pulled up with several injuries in the past 12 months, then Simon Zebo would switch to fullback with Andrew Trimble off the bench.

A comparison of the replacements makes for worrying reading. Noves has held the 25 stone New Zealand born tighthead Uini Atonio in reserve, along with Eddy Ben and Christopher Tolofua, which promises a massive impact in the final quarter just as Schmidt is forced to turn to inexperienced Munster frontrowers Niall Scannell and John Ryan.

Cian Healy will replace Jack McGrath at around the 50 minute mark but Tadhg Furlong and Rory Best may need to stay on the field into the last 10 minutes.

“It’s a luxury for us to have two players that can mix and match like Cian and Jack.”

Munster captain Peter O’Mahony does make a welcome return to the squad as backrow cover for whover from Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander tires first. Iain Henderson is another ball carrying option off the bench, be it for Donnacha Ryan or at blindside.

“The French replacements look very strong as well,” Schmidt admitted.

“I think they are really dangerous. When they were 16-12 up (in Twickenham) they just let it slip a fraction. If they get into that position against us they will be incredibly happy not to let that happen. They appear to have the right mix, the right players. The foundations Guy has put in are quite promising, hopefully they don’t come to fruition on Saturday.”

Andrew Conway and Dan Leavy are expected to tog with the team in the case of last minute withdrawals.

IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong, D Ryan, D Toner, CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Replacements: N Scannell, C Healy, J Ryan, I Henderson, P O’Mahony, K Marmion, P Jackson, A Trimble.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent