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'Conor is pretty much his own man and he's very easy to play with'

Joe Schmidt wasn’t surprised to see Johnny Sexton make an impact on his return from injury.

JOE SCHMIDT SAID he has “a fair bit of admiration” for his entire Ireland team after they battled to a 19-9 victory at home against France, but the admiration from the outside was largely focused on Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.

Simon Zebo and Conor Murray celebrate winning Simon Zebo celebrates with Conor Murray. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There were other strong individual performances as Ireland secured their second win of the Six Nations, though it is the halfback pairing who will be creating the headlines in the aftermath.

Sexton was superb on his return from a calf injury, impressing for 69 minutes in his first appearance since limping off in Leinster’s Champions Cup clash with Castres on 20 January.

“In a measured way, I thought he was really, really positive for us,” said Schmidt afterwards. “We varied the game up in the second half a little bit, because we felt we couldn’t use ourselves up too much, that we had to try to get them chasing things, rather than chasing us.

“I thought Johnny did it superbly, a couple of great kicks in behind them that allowed us to keep the pressure on, even though we didn’t have the ball at the time.

“He never shirks his defensive responsibilities anyway, Johnny, so you knew the value that he was going to give you.

“We had probably aimed to give him 50 or 55 [minutes], but with the nature of the game… he got the wind knocked out of him and had a two-and-a-half-minute rest for a period, so we gave him a little bit longer.”

To see Sexton get back up to speed so swiftly was impressive, but for Schmidt it came as no surprise.

“I think it’s based on experience,” said Schmidt. “It’s certainly not the first time Johnny’s done it. He tends to come in, prepares himself incredibly well. He’s got such an incredibly competitive edge that he wants to be at his best all the time.

Jonathan Sexton Sexton played 69 minutes before being replaced by Paddy Jackson. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He felt good, he felt fresh. I think for some of the other players, you accumulate knocks and fatigue week to week, Johnny came in and felt good. The game was stop-start at the scrum, the resets. The bits of the game that are frustrating for everyone, including us, probably allowed him a little bit of a breather.”

Scrum-half Murray was named man of the match after an exceptional performance in Ireland’s nine shirt, and appeared to benefit from the presence of Sexton outside him.

Murray has also had big games for Ireland with Paddy Jackson in the 10 shirt, of course, and Schmidt stated that he doesn’t think the identity of the out-half is decisive in how the Munster man performs.

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“I think Conor is pretty much his own man and whether it’s Paddy or Johnny or, as it was during November at times, Joey Carbery, I think he’s very easy to play with for any of those players,” said Schmidt.

“Because he gives you time and space on the ball. I think he’s a superb passer of the ball and he takes his own responsibilities if you ask it of him.

“If you need a box kick or you want something slid down the touchline, like he did superbly in that last 10 minutes to carve off 45 metres.

“That was superb breathing space and a set-piece we could structure our defence off.”

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