Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will “probably not” play Johnny Sexton against Samoa next week if his number one fly-half runs out for Racing Metro this weekend.
Schmidt waved goodbye to his former Leinster charge from Ireland training camp at Carton House last night as the 28-year-old headed back to Paris for potentially his 13th game in 12 weeks when Racing head south to Biarritz on Saturday.
Sexton had been earmarked for a weekend off ahead of the Guinness Series, which kicks off in eight days against the Samoans, but his French club have recalled the Irishman following an injury to Juan Martin Hernandez and fitness doubts over this weekend’s starting 10 Jonathan Wisniewski.
Now Sexton looks set to start on the bench in Biarritz, provided Wiesniewski stays fit, and Schmidt must hold his breath until his star man returns to camp on Sunday night to see whether he will be in good enough shape to face Samoa or whether he will go with either Paddy Jackson or Ian Madigan at out-half.
Asked if Sexton would play for Ireland if he faced Biarritz this weekend, Schmidt said: “Probably not. He does have an eight-day period post the November series to have a rest, so if he’s feeling right up to it and he feels he can take on the three-match series and maintain a level of performance, fitness and enthusiasm through that period, then we would certainly look at that. Any decision we do make will be in discussion with Johnny.”
Schmidt, who as head coach at Leinster brought the best out of Sexton during three successful European campaigns, is only too aware of the hold French clubs have on their players having moved to the province from Clermont.
“One of the things, unfortunately, is that they own Johnny’s services, and they’re fully entitled to make use of them, because they are pretty good services to have,” Schmidt said of Racing
“I would feel Jonny has given pretty good service, and I know where Johnny wants to be at the moment, and playing for his country is something that is massively important to him.
“Johnny is an incredibly loyal fella, he would do whatever is required of him at Racing, but he would love to be playing for Ireland.
“Unfortunately, that’s one of things that happened in him going off shore, that’s no longer controlled. It’s easy for me to say of course I’d let him play. The one thing I would say is that he definitely needs a break; 13 games in 12 weeks is far more than a player should be playing in the first place.”
Taking this weekend off was seen as crucial by Schmidt who has already noticed a change in the player who walked into camp last Sunday night.
“He just was pretty tired at the start of the week to be honest, and he was pretty flat. I know Johnny pretty well at this stage. He’s a pretty buoyant character, and a pretty bossy character, in a really good sense, because he gives great direction on the field. And he was definitely a bit flat at the start of the week.
“He’s bouncing back now but he is also taking a flight back to Paris this evening. That’s unfortunately the way it is. If Johnny is run down next week and he does play at the weekend against Biarritz, it’s a great opportunity for Paddy or Ian to step up and try and make mark.
“I’d definitely give him a rest on Monday. We’re sort of saying, to be honest, Tuesday is the cut off really. If somebody is not fully fit to train Tuesday, we get small enough windows as a group already, it would be hard to include somebody post-Tuesday because we’d have one session on Thursday and a very light captain’s run (on Friday) and then it’s match day on Saturday.”
With Brian O’Driscoll, Schmidt faces a different dilemma, namely whether the outside centre can get through three Tests over successive weekends with just 70 minutes of rugby under his belt this season.
The 34-year-old, in his final season before retirement, is over the calf strain that kept him out of Leinster’s derby defeat at Munster and the two Heineken Cup pool games which followed but his match fitness is still a concern for his former provincial boss as he assesses O’Driscoll’s readiness to take on Samoa, Australia and New Zealand.
“I think if you ask him, he’ll say ‘yes’, undoubtedly. My view would be to be guided by him. He knows his own body pretty well. It’d be nice to be ale to say ‘bring him back in a Pro12 games’, give him 60 minutes or give him 50 minutes and build him back in to full match fitness. We don’t have that luxury. We have to play three finals in a row and you’ve got to prioritise the first final. And so if he does play and start against Samoa, I’d expect he could probably do the same against Australia and New Zealand.”
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