Joe Schmidt believes Johnny Sexton is fed up with being told to retire off the pitch and openly targeted on it – but will turn that frustration into top form in the RBS 6 Nations.
Sexton has been passed fit after his head-injury scare in a saga now dating back almost three years that includes 12 weeks sidelined starting in December 2014 after four concussions inside 12 months.
Columnist and former Ireland international George Hook has urged Sexton to consider quitting for his long-term health, while Schmidt grew tired of France vowing to hunt down the 30-year-old during the autumn’s World Cup.
Schmidt insists Sexton will start the Six Nations unencumbered, and backed the fly-half to channel all the outside chatter to help produce his best rugby.
“One of the massive frustrations for Johnny was that he was bouncing around full of enthusiasm, training, and doing a good job of it,” said Schmidt of Ireland’s Monday training session.
“And he feels that this time last year a number of opinions were thrown out there, some by ex-players, who didn’t have the same medical expertise that two of the best guys in Europe did.
“And he felt it was probably better to base his opinion on his health and well-being on the expertise rather than someone who had never clinically assessed him, or anyone else for that matter.
“That’s a distraction that he found a little bit unfortunate last year.
“But at the same time he’s a strong character, Johnny, and he doesn’t get affected too much by those things.
“There was a little bit of unsavoury dialogue in the lead-up to the last pool game at the World Cup (against France), in terms of him being targeted.
“And if you know how stubborn Johnny is, that’s fuelled the fire.
“He’s incredibly brave as a number 10, he stands his ground as a defender.
“You only had to see that, because when he did get back from his lay-off last time he had a big feller come straight down his channel with his forearm, and Johnny grabbed him, held him up, with a little bit of help from his friends, and that’s the nature of him.”
Ireland would make history with a third consecutive Six Nations title this year, but Schmidt believes the arrival of Eddie Jones as England boss and Guy Noves leading France will crank up the quality of the competition.
“I think he is universally respected,” said Schmidt of Noves.
“He’s coached in Toulouse for so long and so successfully that his experience will inevitably bring out a little bit of excitement amongst the players.
“Guy will bring a voice of calm and a voice of reason.
“His experience will give the players a bit of confidence, and maybe the French public a bit of confidence, that with the success he’s had, that the future for France will be successful as well.
“And for Eddie the massive advantage is that he’s got a lot more international experience than I had when I took over Ireland.
“Eddie has had some really good success with Australia and that Japan win over South Africa that none of us will ever forget, but they also won two other games that people will maybe forget.
“With his experience and previous international success, he knows exactly what it takes to get in front on big days in big international Test matches.
“With him and Guy joining the crew it’s going to be a bit tougher again.”