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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 17 April 2021

Schmidt backs 'great orchestrator' Sexton to lift Ireland for France

The 31-year-old is back at out-half in place of Paddy Jackson ahead of tomorrow’s Six Nations clash.

JOE SCHMIDT WENT to great lengths to underline his belief in Paddy Jackson yesterday, while also pushing the qualities of Joey Carbery and Ian Keatley, but there was one man everyone wanted to talk about.

Johnny Sexton is back in the Ireland team for the first time since he limped off the pitch in the home defeat to New Zealand in November.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates winning Sexton starts at 10 for Ireland tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Many have questioned the decision to drop Jackson to the bench after a string of strong performances in the 10 shirt, but it was never likely that the Ulsterman could keep Sexton out of the starting XV.

Sexton is perhaps still the very first name on Schmidt’s team sheet when fit. He is a demanding leader, an expert tactician and possesses an extremely rounded skillset that incorporates attacking, defensive, mental and kicking qualities.

“I think he’s a great orchestrator of play,” said a relaxed Schmidt after naming his team yesterday. “I think he navigates us around the pitch really well and I think he sees things very early and that allows other players to get into good positions.

“He brings other players into the game well because his experience is such that his option-taking is often very good and he varies play well for us.”

Schmidt stressed again that Jackson is “growing into” those areas well for Ireland, too, but it’s quite clear that Sexton remains the clear first-choice.

“I think it’s just Johnny’s know-how a little bit,” said Schmidt. “He’s been there more often, he knows probably a little bit more as far as predicting what’s going to happen, how he can close it down, or how he can get people into the right places to help him close it down.

“Because it’s a real hub, because it’s a position that so much is demanded of the person who plays it, it’s one of those things that you want to accumulate those experiences to have a better ability to predict what the circumstances are likely to throw at you and therefore try to be a little bit ahead of the game.”

Sexton has accumulated those experiences in all the right places – Six Nations deciders, Heineken Cup finals, Pro12 trophy matches, a Lions tour.  But it’s not only about what Sexton does on the pitch.

He is one of the key leaders for Schmidt’s group in the build-up to games, and though the Ireland head coach said his players tend to take care of their mental prep individually, he did say Sexton brings “a little bit of an edge to things.”

Jonathan Sexton The 31-year-old in training at Carton House yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The cranky demands, the unwillingness not to strive for perfection, the ability to eviscerate team-mates for errors, therefore keeping them on their toes.

Is Sexton fully fit? It’s a valid question, given how little rugby he has played this season.

His most recent appearance came in Leinster colours back on 20 January, but he lasted only 22 minutes of that clash with Castres before succumbing to the calf issue he is now recovered from.

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Sexton only featured twice in Ireland’s four November Tests, one of those contests with New Zealand lasting just 18 minutes for the 31-year-old, and his last 80-minute outing came all the way back in October.

Schmidt, however, insists that the out-half is above 90% in terms of his fitness – this being professional rugby, where it is extremely rare for a player to be 100% physically fit.

“He feels really good,” said Schmidt. “There’s a real freshness, a real spring in his step. He will bring that energy into the group.”

There is little doubt France will be looking to leave a shoulder or two in on Sexton tomorrow at the Aviva Stadium. Such is the life of an out-half – at any level of the game, in truth.

Les Blues‘ perceived targeting of Sexton in last year’s Six Nations clash in Paris bothered Ireland, but Schmidt insists he won’t be speaking to referee Nigel Owens about taking care of Sexton.

“I think if you focus too much on that, the particular referee we had that day [Jaco Peyper], you know, it’s not something that hasn’t happened again and we’d have a fair bit of faith in Nigel that things are kept in check. And that includes us.

Jonathan Sexton leaves the pitch injured with Jim McShane and James Allen Sexton had a tough day against the French last year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We’ve got to make sure that our discipline is good, that we don’t transgress and I know that Guy [Novès, the France coach], he will have his players lined up to make sure they are similar.

“We’re both, I’m pretty sure, conscious of how driven the referees are to stamp out foul play, so it’s not something we have discussed at all. It’s not been a discussion point at all.

“At this stage, I don’t have any plans to meet the referee. I don’t tend to meet the referee before games. They’ve got a tough enough job to do without people complicating it.”

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Murray Kinsella

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