Joe Schmidt tipped to favour Johnny Sexton

Joe Schmidt may wait until after training this morning at Carton House before finalising his Ireland team to face France in Dublin on Saturday.

With fly-half Johnny Sexton back in the mix, Schmidt wants to give himself every possible guarantee his first-choice number 10 is ready.

With stand-in Paddy Jackson enhancing his reputation in Sexton’s absence since replacing the Lions playmaker in the first half of the November 19 Test against the All Blacks in Dublin, Schmidt has a genuine decision to make over his choice of playmaker but there is every indication he will select Sexton to start against the French alongside scrum-half Conor Murray.

With Ireland still playing catch-up in the championship following their opening-round loss to Scotland, both Schmidt and skills coach Richie Murphy have talked about the confidence Sexton instils in those around him on the field and the 31-year-old’s added experience compared to his 24-year-old rival looks set to tip the balance against the Ulster fly-half.

Rob Kearney’s bicep injury sustained in the record 63-10 victory over Italy a fortnight ago has also created uncertainty over who fills the full-back berth, particularly with the return to fitness of experienced wing Andrew Trimble, who could come into the matchday 23 at Craig Gilroy’s expense. Kearney, like Sexton, was declared ready to go on Tuesday but Simon Zebo could switch from left wing to full-back if the Leinster man shows any sign of a reaction in this morning’s final full training session, Trimble standing by to start alongside fellow wing Keith Earls, which would allow Gilroy to retain his place on the bench.

Ireland captain and hooker Rory Best is back to full health, Niall Scannell reverting to the bench.

Having started at loosehead at Stadio Olimpico, Cian Healy may be rotated back to the bench as Jack McGrath takes over in the number one jersey while for the back row replacement, injury to flanker Josh van der Flier should see Munster captain Peter O’Mahony return to Ireland colours as cover for probable starting trio CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

With Ultan Dillane dropped, cover for the second row is set to be provided by Iain Henderson. Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner look likely to continue as the locks.

Ireland (possible):

R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best – captain, T Furlong; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.


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