Johnny Sexton will be teeing the ball up at the Aviva Stadium this morning, working away with skills coach Richie Murphy on his day off to keep his kicking routine ticking over as the countdown to Twickenham continues.
A four-from-five goal-kicking return from last Saturday’s Six Nations win over Scotland, contributing 12 points from four conversions to the 28-8 scoreline, marked a resumption of normal service for Ireland’s fly-half following the previous round’s aberration of three from seven against Wales.
According to Murphy, it resembled confirmation that Sexton was over the glute issue which had forced his removal from the Welsh win and reduced his preparations for the penultimate game.
“He’s 100% now. He trained fully [yesterday] and kicked after the session. I’m meeting him at 10:30 in the morning at the Aviva and he’s going to kick again. I think he is in a really good place.
"He has obviously had a lot of change in his life over the last while with a couple of kids coming along so you can see a different side to him.
“He is obviously a fair bit more mature than he was at the start, he has got other worries which is probably a good thing for him because it will distract him from the game.
That picture of a player at the peak of his powers and brimming with confidence will help to soothe nerves ahead of Ireland’s Grand Slam showdown with England as the newly crowned champions face the back-to-back winners in their own backyard at Twickenham.
Yet it was just 10 months ago that Sexton’s self-belief was at less than 100% as he readied himself for a British & Irish Lions tour in which one of Saturday’s rival playmakers, Owen Farrell, was in prime position to wear the famous red No10 jersey.
Farrell did start at fly-half in the first Test against the All Blacks with Sexton as back up, but it was the Irishman who came in for the second and third games of the compelling drawn series, pushing the Englishman out to inside centre, a position he has occupied for his country in a 10-12 partnership with George Ford.
Murphy said he had had no worries about Sexton coming good.
“I had no doubts, Johnny is a class player. Owen Farrell is a class player as well, he is right at the top of the game, but I think Johnny sees things so well, he has been around for quite a time now, his understanding of the game and his ability to organise players is second to none so I had no doubt that he would feature in those Lions Tests and we had no doubt that when he came back to Ireland he would help bring us forward and that is the situation we have been in.”
Engineering that nerveless 41-phase drive against France in round one before executing the game-winning, long-range drop goal was proof positive of Sexton’s dominance of his brief as he bids to complete a career circle this weekend having been an unused and uncapped member of Declan Kidney’s 2009 Grand Slam-winning squad.
“I think he always had a good understanding of the game,” said Ireland assistant coach Murphy. “I think what he has now is, there is very few things that happen in a game that he hasn’t seen before.
"His presence within the group is much different to 2009 when he was quite a young player. So I think they’re probably the main things, how he works with others, how he deals with Conor (Murray) and Bundee (Aki) and those outside him, how he organises the forwards. Over the past number of years, that’s improved massively.
“I think Johnny could fit into any team.”
Murphy sees Farrell in similar terms to Ireland’s No10 as a major influence on his team and potentially this weekend’s game.
“I think he’s come into that sort of situation now. His ability to create for others is really good. He’ll try and get our defenders to make decisions early and then he’ll pick the right pass on the back of that. So his ball-playing ability is really good.
“He obviously has a strong kicking game, a beautiful place-kicker. He’s physical in the middle of the park and so I think he’s really grown into that role for England.”
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