Joe Schmidt has kicked any fears over Jonathan Sexton’s accuracy off the tee to touch ahead of Ireland’s crucial Six Nations clash with Scotland at the weekend, writes Brendan O’Brien.
The Leinster out-half failed with four place kicks last time out against Wales, costing Ireland eleven points in total in a game that was in the balance until injury-time when Jacob Stockdale ran in for an intercepted try.
Sexton is one of the world’s most accurate kickers of a ball, both from the ground and from hand and, though there were concerns this last two weeks over a glute injury suffered against the Welsh, the Ireland coach could have hardly been more forceful in his backing for his number ten.
“Super confident,” he declared at the team announcement on Thursday afternoon. “He is a world-class kicker. I would have no hesitation in Johnny making any decision about any kick he is going to have. He actually struck three out of those four kicks quite well, even the one that hit the post.
“There was a bit of breeze and maybe he over-allowed for it but the strike was spot on.
“The ball flight was very much what he was looking for so I don’t think he was a million miles away. Leigh Halfpenny kicked superbly (that same day for Wales) but I’d watched him kick and, I think, miss three for Toulon a few weeks before that.
“They were all in the fairly narrow ‘V’ that you would normally say ‘well, that’s three points’. Or ‘that’s two points for Leigh Halfpenny’. That can happen on any given day but the real class kickers like Leigh Halfpenny and Johnny Sexton, that happens once in a blue moon and you don’t get blue moons all the time.
Schmidt has made two changes to his starting XV for the visit of the Scots. Tadhg Furlong returns from hamstring injury to replace Andrew Porter as tighthead prop and Garry Ringrose takes the place of the injured Chris Farrell at 13.
Iain Henderson, back from a hamstring issue, will start on the bench. It was expected that the Ulster lock would slip into the second row but Ireland have stuck with the Leinster tandem of the young James Ryan and veteran Devin Toner.
“The three of them have done really well for us in the championship so far and it was probably just a case of trying to get some continuity with what we have done in the last game two weeks ago and into this game against Scotland,” said the Kiwi boss.
Henderson, he confirmed, is fully fit.
“Fully fit. Absolutely. As I’ve said the last couple of weeks, Iain could have possibly played against Wales and it would have been a risk. There is absolutely no risk of him re-injuring himself. It’s just a case of trying to keep a balance.
“It also potentially adds a bit to the last 30 minutes, 20 minutes, of our game where an athlete like Iain can come on.
“You have a guy like Andrew Porter who has done very well for us starting and playing 77 minutes against Italy. Jack McGrath had a cracking first 50 minutes against Italy so we are hoping those guys will bring real energy into that last quarter.”
Whether Ringrose lasts that long is another thing.
The Leinster centre has played just six times this season because of injury and he has just 54 minutes under his belt this calendar year, against Southern Kings, two weeks ago. A concern? Yes, he admitted, but needs-must given the attrition rate in the midfield.
“There is always concerns about players for different reasons and Garry has only had six games this season. That’s something that you calculate in but there are times when you don’t have the plethora of options. Garry has been extraordinary when he has played for us. Done an incredible job.
“He played in Japan and was absolutely outstanding in the back line along with Keith Earls. They were two of the standouts for us so we are hoping he can hit the ground running and hit that form.
“He is a smart player and hopefully that allows him hit a balance between when he has to work hard and just regenerate a little on the pitch. That will allow him to extend his match minutes to 80-quality minutes.”