Ireland star Johnny Sexton could be forced into an unscheduled French Top 14 start this weekend after Racing Metro were plunged into a fresh fly-half injury crisis.
With Joe Schmidt’s frontline players in the provinces set for a weekend off, the national head coach was hoping his Paris-based playmaker would escape duty for Racing this weekend against Bayonne but as their coach and Irish Examiner columnist Ronan O’Gara reveals today, an illness for Argentinian out-half Juan Martin Hernandez has required a rethink at the club.
Hernandez reported sick yesterday and Jonathan Wisniewski is already sidelined so Racing are left with just Sexton and Benjamin Dambielle as their fly-half options.
“For this week the plan was to use him in the group of 23 but all going well, he wouldn’t go near the pitch,” O’Gara writes. “Now that Juan Martin Hernandez is out of the equation, it becomes very complicated. As we go to print we’re not too sure whether Sexton starts or whether he sits on the bench.”
Keeping Sexton out of the action is in the club’s interests as much as Ireland’s, given his prolific start to life in the Top 14, when he played 13 straight games before arriving in national camp last November with a hip injury that forced him to miss the opening Test against Samoa.
A more settled rotation policy at Racing has seen Sexton used more sparingly since the November Tests and he arrived for Six Nations camp in buoyant mood having faced Toulouse after a week’s holiday. Having played against Scotland and Wales in subsequent weeks both parties hoped the British & Irish Lions’ first-choice out-half would get a weekend off with a four-game stretch on the horizon, with Sexton pencilled in to face England, Castres, Italy and France in successive weeks.
“We’re also aware of the bigger picture with England the following weekend and Castres the weekend after that and then Italy and France in the weekends after that. It’s impossible for any human being to play all those games so Racing are trying to not use him at all, if at all possible,” said O’Gara.
The thought of anxiously waiting for news from Paris this weekend was not what Schmidt had in mind as he looked forward yesterday to assessing the fringe members of his squad in Pro12 action for their provinces.
Having reconvened his core group of players from the 26-3 win over Wales last Saturday for a mini-camp in Clonmel this week, the Ireland management released the replacements from that game and unused players to their provinces to give them game time ahead of his squad selection for the England game. While admitting it would be a difficult decision to replace the men who scored such a resounding victory over the Welsh, Schmidt, in an interview conducted by IRFUTV in Clonmel on Wednesday night and distributed to the media yesterday, said there was still a chance to stake a claim this weekend.
“If the players that are currently on the field most of the time, if they’re in great form and they’re doing the job, it’s hard to leave them out of the side,” Schmidt said. “That’s their challenge to stay in good form, to keep delivering, and it’s a challenge for the other guys to put the best performances they can together.
“We had a good look at the games from the weekend, we’ll get along and watch the games this weekend. Obviously there’s a few guys who are not too far away from reappearing. It would be great if Eoin Reddan and Luke Fitzgerald are involved with Leinster this weekend against the Dragons on Friday night and on the Saturday Donnacha Ryan might make a reappearance for Munster [against Zebre].
“I think those guys are available for selection, anyway, post-injury, so whether or not they appear, I’m not sure, but we’re very interested in those sort of guys.”
While there will be disappointment at Fitzgerald’s absence from the Leinster squad to face Dragons tonight, the wing still not recovered from the lower abdominal strain that kept him out of the Scottish and Welsh games, Schmidt will at least see his second-choice front row in action at the RDS with Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Marty Moore all starting.
“Tommy O’Donnell, we’d be interested to see how he goes for Munster,” Schmidt added. “Felix Jones will be back in for Munster and obviously Darren Cave and Luke Marshall did a good job for Ulster last weekend.”
Tommy Bowe, though, is set to miss out further as he continues his recovery from a groin injury, forcing him out of Ulster’s clash with Scarlets tonight, although Schmidt has been delighted with the work shown from the wings chosen in his absence, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney.
“Fergus McFadden has added a fair bit of energy when he’s come off the bench and he’ll get a little bit more game time for Leinster as well. You’ve also got guys like Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo out there playing. Tommy is a class player but at the same time, the players that are there are making it really competitive to make any changes. I guess while it’s frustrating for Tommy, hopefully we’ll see him back in time to get a look at him before we play Italy and France.”
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