A nation may have breathed a sigh of relief at the news of Johnny Sexton being fit to face Wales this weekend, but the Ireland management are at pains to promote the importance of the collective in the bid for back-to-back RBS 6 Nations championships.
Ireland’s hopes of keeping their Grand Slam bid alive received a massive boost yesterday when fly-half Sexton, his hamstring healing, was declared fit to play the Welsh in Saturday’s Six Nations clash at the Millennium Stadium.
Just as any discussion of a first Grand Slam since 2009 is regarded as taboo, despite three wins from three, at the Irish training base in Co Kildare, so too is talk of Sexton being key to Ireland’s hopes of achieving it.
Widely regarded as the best fly-half in world rugby right now, Sexton was instrumental in the victories over France and England, having watched Ian Keatley fill the breach in the opening win in Italy as he finished his 12-week layoff for a series of concussions sustained during 2014.
So when he limped out of the 19-9 success over the English 10 days ago clutching a hamstring he twinged converting the only try of the game, there were fears among fans that a Six Nations apocalypse was nigh.
Head coach Joe Schmidt and his backroom team understandably do not underestimate Sexton’s contribution to the cause but in declaring him fit for duty this weekend in Cardiff, assistant coach Richie Murphy yesterday insisted Ireland were not overly reliant on their playmaker.
“He is a really important part of the package, obviously,” Murphy said.
“His direction and his leadership on the pitch is massive, those decisions that he makes on the run.
"In that way he is a massive part of the squad but Jamie [Heaslip] is a massive part of the squad and there are other people who have been massive parts of the squad and when they have been out, other guys have stepped in and done a good job, like, in fairness to Keats over in Italy, he had a fine game.
"Look, we’re really happy to have him. We’re really happy he will be fit, but I suppose the back-up is the whole squad doesn’t rely on the back of just Johnny.”
Even so, the recovery of Sexton from what Murphy admitted was “something in and around that grade one tear” to his hamstring remains of paramount importance and news he began kicking again and completed a full training session yesterday was welcome news ahead of his kicking duel with Leigh Halfpenny.
“Really happy where he is at,” Murphy said. “He was modified training yesterday, he stepped it up today, he’ll do a kicking session tomorrow and we’re expecting him to be fit.
“He is sort of on a return to his proper kicking schedule, so he has done some kicking. Did some kicking Sunday, did some light kicking yesterday, kicked today and will kick tomorrow again. He didn’t do any contact today, but he took part in full training.
"He was running at 100%. So he’s fine. He’s in a good place. He is driving exactly like he would be any other day... the [medical] lads are pretty happy that he is ready to go this week.”
With Ireland set to have Jared Payne and Sean O’Brien available following the completion of their return to play from concussion protocols, and No8 Heaslip “fit and healthy” according to Murphy, Schmidt appears to have a fully fit squad to choose from ahead of tomorrow’s team announcement.
“It’s great,” Murphy said.
“The atmosphere in the squad is good. Everyone is very focused on the task in hand and I suppose everyone sees it as something they want to be involved in. No one wants to miss out through injury. They’re trying to make sure they are ticking all the boxes and making sure that their recovery strategies are right up there.”
While Ireland’s win over England was comprehensive, the perception persists Schmidt’s side are lacking in attacking flair, having scored just one try in the last two rounds. Yet Murphy believes there are merely fine margins at play, and there is more to come.
“We’ve actually created quite a lot of opportunities. Now, we haven’t quite taken them. Some people mightn’t agree with that, but we can see it,” he said.
“We can see what we’re trying to set up within our attack and how we think the opposition will be and what they’ll do.
But, it’s a very difficult thing to do, because one player does something slightly different and the whole thing changes, meaning someone has to make a decision and change that. But, look, all I can really say about that is we’re driving the lads forward. They are very keen on trying to get that detail right and, if we can manage that, more scores will come.”