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Sexton settled into Ireland rhythm and ready to duel France

The skipper feels improvements in training as he looks forward to a return to Paris.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

NOTHING SHARPENS THE mind for a rugby player like actually playing.

Johnny Sexton admits that, even in the lead-up to last week’s Six Nations win over Italy, he was conscious of fluffing his lines. Pesky Leinster calls wriggled their way to the tip of his tongue, muddying waters and slowing the rhythm while he made the effort to keep clarity coming in attack.

“I think the way we trained today was a lot better than last Tuesday,” Sexton said in the captain’s new standing media engagement.

At times last week in training there’s a couple of Leinster calls that are slipping into the mind and you’re calling them out and lads are looking at you. It’s very hard to get them out of your head.

“I think this week is obviously more comfortable. We’re properly in Ireland mode and I think we trained much better today and had a much better start to the week. Hopefully we can continue that tomorrow and just build as the week goes on.”

With Sexton behind the mic and France in Paris ahead, the spectre of his sensational winning drop-goal against Les Bleus in 2018 was raised more than once to the out-half. He says it has not been a source Ireland have looked to tap for inspiration. Little wonder. A win would be worth celebrating, but another try-less return would not deliver what Ireland are aiming to achieve this weekend.

Assuming England will score at least four tries in beating Italy, Andy Farrell’s side need the same in Paris. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the new head coach and attack coach Mike Catt set up the side to play with greater width. Calls for players to trust instincts out of structure and back their own decision-making manifested, against Italy, in attacks from deep and a very noteworthy offload from Peter O’Mahony.

“I know that we didn’t offload a lot,” says Sexton with a wry smile, “but Joe (Schmidt) never said ‘don’t offload’. It was the decision-making process.

“I suppose the way we have a better shape across the field at the moment will allow guys more opportunity to do that because the defence will probably be spread out a bit more.”

“Sometimes our attack over the last couple of years was very narrow and obviously when you’re running into brick walls and big men, we’re not the biggest team, so we need space to be able to offload.”

“So you saw a few bits and pieces on Saturday, but we don’t go out there thinking about offloading, you go out there to think about playing into space, and if the opportunity presents itself well then it’s great and it can work.”

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johnny-sexton-scores-a-try-despite-sebastian-negri Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

France may well line up with a similar attacking approach. While Shaun Edwards’ defence is an impressive new addition for Les Bleus in this campaign, the DNA of their attack under Fabien Galthié is what Sexton calls ‘pure French’.

“That offloading game, I know from my time there, they call it the duels where they rely on beating you one-on-one, they get that pass away into the space.

“That’s their game really. They like to play quick, offload, dominate in the collisions and in defence they bring line speed.

“They are clever with how they play. They don’t play too much in their own half and they tend to kick a lot of ball long and keep the ball in.

“So, we probably won’t have that many line-outs. Luckily we had a bit of practice last week with Italy, who did the exact same to us.”

Similar approach perhaps, but a very different shade of blue for Ireland to overcome.

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Sean Farrell

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