Joe Schmidt does not need reminding tomorrow’s Six Nations clash with France is a win or bust affair but it will certainly calm the nerves that he will have Johnny Sexton back in harness to keep Ireland’s championship hopes alive in Dublin.
First-choice fly-half Sexton will start in a Test match this weekend for the first time since November 19, one of three changes from the bonus-point rout of Italy on February 11 with captain Rory Best recovered from a stomach bug to return at hooker and Jack McGrath taking over from Cian Healy in the latest rotation of the loosehead props.
Yet it is Sexton’s re-emergence that demands attention. His last Test appearance against New Zealand, the 31-year-old’s 63rd Ireland cap, lasted just 18 minutes before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the rest of 2016 and he managed only another 130 minutes of game time for Leinster since that evening at the Aviva Stadium before a calf strain on January 20 sidelined Sexton for the first two rounds of this RBS 6 Nations.
Another player may not have been thrown straight back into the fray and expected to hit the ground running. For others a gradual reintroduction via their province and then perhaps the Test bench.
This no ordinary case for Ireland though. As well as Paddy Jackson has played during Sexton’s recent spells on the sidelines – on tour in South Africa last June and in the three and three-quarter games since the main man hobbled off against the All Blacks – Schmidt knows starting his Lions Series-winning fly-half is a risk worth taking.
“Anyone is fallible because it is a game where impacts are fairly solid,” the head coach said yesterday, “there are people that have long injury-free periods and then it seems once you get one, you pick up something else and you pick up something else. That’s the nature of it.
“It is fickle. It is not predictable and as a result it is difficult to say for certain whether anyone is going to last the game and that is part of the mix that you try to include on the bench and they are all super important because, you know, if you lose someone early you have to have someone to slot in.”
What is not in question are the qualities Sexton delivers for Ireland whenever he pulls on that green jersey.
“I think he’s a great orchestrator of play. I think he navigates us around the pitch really well and I think he sees things very much early and that allows other players to get into good positions. He brings other players into the game well because his experience is such that his option-taking is often very good and he varies play well for us.”
Schmidt went on to also praise not just Jackson but fellow fly-halves in waiting, the fit-again Joey Carbery, the exiled Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley, released from the Ireland squad back to Munster for tonight’s Pro12 clash with Scarlets having impressed the head coach during his three weeks in camp.
Asked where Sexton was at in terms of a percentage, Schmidt rejected the suggestion his fly-half may be currently running at 75 or 80 percent.
“I think he would be in the 90s,” he countered. “He feels really good. One of the things about playing week to week to week is that has a cumulative attritional effect, and he hasn’t had that. There’s a real freshness, a real spring in his step. I think as the season goes on you’ve got a little bit of a sore ankle or your shoulder’s niggling a bit. Johnny feels great, and that’s great for us. He will bring that energy into the group.
“He has a competitive edge, and that’s not taking anything away from Paddy, because if you go back and look at what Paddy has offered, and go back to South Africa, the number of tackles and the people he was tackling, Paddy was exceptional. He is an incredible competitor as well.
“I think it’s just Johnny’s know-how (that gives him an edge). He’s been there more often, he knows probably a little bit more as far as predicting what’s going to happen, how he can close it down, or how he can get people into the right places to help him close it down.
“Those things, because it’s a real hub, because it’s a position that so much is demanded of the person who plays it, it’s one of those things that you want to accumulate those experiences to have a better ability to predict what the circumstances are likely to throw at you and therefore try to be a little bit ahead of the game.”
There can be no better time for Ireland to welcome back their talismanic playmaker. Round three, against the French in Dublin and with home title hopes hanging in the balance after that opening-day loss to Scotland. Lose again and Schmidt acknowledges he will be kissing goodbye to the chance of a third championship in four seasons at the helm.
“Yeah, mathematically there’s not too many other ways of looking at it,” he concluded. “England have obviously got a little bit of a flyer on everyone else, because they’re the only unbeaten team, so for ourselves, Scotland, Wales and France, there’s going to be two teams that are left hanging in and two teams that are effectively out of the race for the top spot.”
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