He may have packed his bags and left Paris for good, but Jonathan Sexton continues to hold a fascination for the French, some of whom have made no secret of their intent to target the Ireland number ten ahead of Sunday’s Pool D meeting between the sides in Cardiff.
Six players were trundled out to meet the press at the French team’s luxurious Vale of Glamorgan team hotel yesterday. Almost all were quizzed about Ireland’s playmaker with the replies ranging from polite and respectful to Eddy Ben Arous’s which was, well, let’s just say less than subtle.
“I know that he is slow in getting rid of the ball. I am going to try and put the maximum pressure on him,” said the prop who played with Sexton at Racing. “I am going to hunt him down as often as possible. We are going to go after him 200% because he is the strong man of this team.”
Alexandre Dumoulin, another Racing clubman, made the point that all 10s are targeted by opponents due to their importance to a side and added that if they are compelled to tackle a lot then they are “less lucid” when taking decisions with ball in hand.
La Rochelle’s Uini Atonio revealed that the Racing players in Philippe Saint-Andre’s squad had indeed told their teammates how Sexton is “very serious” in training. One of those, Brice Dulin, was unequivocal about the need to target the Leinster out-half.
“It is imperative to go after him, to tire him so that he finds it tough to make the calls,” said the Racing full-back. “He has a certain manner of playing for Ireland, he loves it hugely to be in the vanguard in order to build the attacks.
“He is capable of taking the pressure off at any moment,” Dulin added. “It is of the greatest importance to be able to read him in his attitude, his positioning, to anticipate what he is going to put into motion.”
It was Dumoulin who added the rider that targeting Sexton would, in itself, be far from enough to win and recent history shows that there is unlikely to be much between the sides when all is said and done come tea-time on Sunday evening.
Ireland have not lost to ‘Les Bleus’ since before the last World Cup, of course, but the aggregate points difference between them and Philippe Saint-Andre’s selections this past four years has been just 2.25 per game. Two of that quartet ended in stalemates.
Even Ireland’s last loss to France was by a measly three points in 2011.
Those are ridiculously slim margins over a full World Cup cycle and it would be no surprise if Schmidt and his staff stressed that backdrop more than once this week as they hand out the individual assignments and gee up those players frustrated at their failure to make the first whistle.
Chris Henry is among them. The Ulster number seven had just the one 80-minute run-out, against Scotland, ahead of this tournament, but his form has been sharp for all that and he is one of those who has added considerable value in the last quarter, particularly last Sunday against Italy.
“I’m starting to learn that the bench is very different,” he said. “I haven’t played much rugby on the bench and it’s certainly something that I’ve had to work on: not wasting a lot of nervous energy in the lead-up to it and making sure that you have your right adrenalin focus when you come on.
“We’ve tried to make an impact (off the bench) and, no doubt, as these games continue you see so many of these close games that are won at the end. It’s usually to do with someone who has come off the bench who has created something for the team because they are a bit fresher.”
Schmidt will be thrilled that he has a full 31-man deck to choose from with Jared Payne and Rob Kearney taking part in a pretty physical training session yesterday morning. The squad has been handed a rest day today with both matchday 23s being named tomorrow.
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