Jonathan Sexton flies back to France this week for a crucial Top 14 clash between his Racing Metro side and reigning champions Castres with opinion divided over his form.
Lauded by some for his game management against England in Twickenham, he has been criticised for his performance with the boot with a restart straight to touch that led to England’s critical try among the chief complaints.
There was the suggestion he had picked up an injury in what was a massive physical battle and, though the IRFU insisted Peter O’Mahony is the only injury concern, there are few players Joe Schmidt would like to rest more right now than his starting out-half.
Instead, he faces the prospect of another tough stint for Racing, who lost away to Bordeaux-Begles last weekend in his absence. Racing are again light on 10s due to injuries and they need a victory against Castres to maintain their hopes of making the top six and end-of-season playoffs.
This on the back of Scotland, Wales, Bayonne and England in successive weeks. All in all, it paints the IRFU’s failure to secure his signature with Leinster 13 months ago in an even less flattering light.
“Jonny is your playmaker as well, isn’t he? He’s the go-to guy for a lot of stuff,” said Guy Easterby, Leinster’s team manager. “That means it makes it more difficult for him if he’s not getting the same amount of rest that the other players are getting.
“He’s the only man capable of doing it because he’s the consummate professional. He only played 15 minutes or so in the previous Racing game. You’d hope he’d be used sparingly again this weekend but they got beaten at the weekend so maybe they feel they might need him little more.
“The situation is what it is. Everyone knew what they were getting themselves into it in terms of that. It’s about dealing with it as best you can. Jonny’s performances haven’t been anywhere below where they’ve needed to be. His performances have been fantastic during the Six Nations so far.
“It’s obviously not causing him too much grief.”
Ireland’s dependency on Sexton is all the greater given Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan lack his experience at Test level. Schmidt may yet have little option but to start one – probably Jackson – against the Italians in the hope that Sexton is fresh for a possible Six Nations championship decider away to France.
“There’s no blame attached to Paddy and Ian because they’re young and lack experience,” said Easterby. “In the past, you’ve had David Humphries and (Ronan O’Gara), then Rog and Jonny. But it took Jonny a while to come through and catch Rog up. I’m sure these guys will be working hard to catch Jonny and he’ll be working hard to stay ahead of them.
“That’s the competitive nature that it is. Ian and Paddy are competitive. I don’t see it as a negative. Your number 10 is a leader and sometimes it’s a good thing to have him a good bit ahead of the others so you know you can build your team around a guy who’s playing very well every week. But I’m sure the other two are working hard to catch him.”
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