Schmidt backs Sexton to cope with physical French challenge

Joe Schmidt has every confidence in Jonathan Sexton's ability to withstand any French onslaught when the sides meet at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, writes Brendan O'Brien of the Irish Examiner.

Sexton has, as expected, been drafted in to the Ireland XV for the heavyweight Six Nations encounter after missing the first two games due to a miserable run of thigh and calf injuries stretching back to the November internationals.

As a scenario, it bears more than a passing resemblance to this same fixture two years back when the ten was parachuted into the ranks for a game against France after twelve weeks sidelined due to concussion.

Sexton suffered a bloodied nose after one hefty collision with the behemoth centre that is Matthieu Bastareaud that day but still gave a commensurate performance to hand Ireland the win and quieten concerns over his well-being.

"We know it's going to be physical," said Schmidt on Thursday after naming his side. "It doesn't matter who you play, it is going to be physical. Two years ago Johnny came back in against the French and I thought played really well.

"He got some fairly physical impacts that day and he hadn't played for twelve weeks and I thought (he) was super. That's part of what you base your decision on, what people have done in the past.

"Can they replicate that? If they have done it in the past then the chances are they are more likely to repeat it. We are confident. Johnny is confident as well and that's important."

Sexton is one of three changes to the starting team that accounted for Italy so easily in Rome two weeks ago. Rory Best returns after illness forced him out at the Stadio Olimpico and Jack McGrath comes back in for Cian Healy.

Both of those alterations were flagged. So was the choice of Sexton instead of Paddy Jackson and, though that was the billboard headline on the day, Schmidt claimed it was no different to any selection call ever made.

"It was a call like any other. We debated it and we do believe that we have a good balance with both players available. It's very hard to come into a side and come off the bench when you haven't played.

"It allows Johnny a little bit more training time with the team this week, as opposed to Paddy who is reasonably comfortable, so it is a balance.

On Saturday, based on how things have gone in the past, we will probably see both players in some positions at some stage of the game."

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