By Brendan O'Brien
Good news on the Jonathan Sexton fitness front this afternoon and, though he will certainly start in the Six Nations against the French this Saturday if that continues, the gap between the Leinster ten and Ulster’s Paddy Jackson has narrowed appreciably.
With Sexton’s minutes in green - and the blue of Leinster - constricted so much by various injuries this last nine months, Jackson has stepped into the breach and done so with the aplomb of a man who has found his feet at Test level.
“Johnny gets picked like everyone else. He has no divine right to get picked,” said Ireland kicking coach Richie Murphy on Tuesday lunchtime when asked about the state of play between the two main candidates for the out-half slot.
“Will he get picked? That is a decision that has to be made. I am not trying to create any confusion. All I am saying is that there will be a decision made on the back of how he has performed over the last two days.”
Sexton took some part in Monday’s training session and ticked every box on the Tuesday. That included some contact work and Rob Kearney’s bicep issue cleared up enough for the full-back to deal with a full load both days.
“Both guys should be ready to go this week,” said Murphy.
So should everyone, it seems. Josh van der Flier has been scrubbed from the roster after picking up an injury with Leinster on Friday evening but everyone still at team HQ has been able to report for active duty this week.
That includes Munster scrum-half Conor Murray, who sat out late last week with a slight adductor complaint, and Andrew Trimble who remains a live contender for a berth on the wing after overcoming groin issues.
Yet it is on Sexton that the spotlight remains.
Murphy knows him for years due to their work together with Leinster and so he understands better than most about the player’s ability to return at full pelt after injury layoffs, which he will need to do again if picked for the Aviva Stadium clash this Saturday.
“He has done this before. He has been out for long periods and come back in and been really good. So it’s not something that is new to him. We feel that he will be ready to go. We will make a decision as to whether he is ready to whether we go with Paddy.”
The fact is that Jackson is still not at the older man’s level.
Murphy mentioned experience when asked for the difference between the pair. Sexton brings far more to bear at this point but Murphy also made the point that Jackson is still the right side of 25 and that Sexton was only making his international debut at that stage.
Jackson already 21 appearances and 166 points to his credit with Ireland and he has made 25 of 26 kicks for the side stretching back to November when he was again called on to deputise for the stricken Leinster man.
That’s a good deposit on his future prospects.
“Paddy has been brilliant,” said Murphy. “We have been very lucky that, while Johnny has been out, Paddy has been stepping in and filling that gap really well, since probably last summer. He has really stepped up to the mark and he’s improving all the time.
“He is still only 24 and Johnny was only getting capped for the first time at the age that Paddy is at now so he has worked really hard with Johnny off the pitch in order to help him drive things. It is starting to come to a stage where there are other options there.”
For now though, there is still no doubt as to who the main one is.