Ireland insists there is a genuine selection battle at fly-half for Saturday’s Six Nations clash with France but the case for Johnny Sexton to start ahead of Paddy Jackson already appears closed.
Sexton, out of action since January with a calf strain, appears set to return to the Irish number 10 jersey at a sold-out Aviva Stadium this weekend, having successfully returned to full training at Carton House yesterday.
As convincing a run of form as his stand-in Jackson has put together, dating back to last summer’s tour to South Africa, the victory over Australia last November and the first two rounds of this 2017 RBS 6 Nations championship, the 24-year-old Ulster playmaker may have to settle for a place on the replacements bench if the Ireland management believe their main man Sexton is able to hit the ground running from a standing start.
At least that seemed to be the message from skills coach Richie Murphy yesterday.
Murphy had delivered the positive news on Sexton’s fitness and that of the entire 34-man Ireland squad following yesterday’s training session at their Kildare training base, noting that both the fly-half and full-back Rob Kearney were “ready to go”.
Later, when asked if there was a fear that rustiness was a potential issue for Sexton, the coach added: “He has done this before. He has been out for long periods and come back in and been really good. So it’s not something that is new to him. We feel that he will be ready to go.
“We will make a decision as to whether he is ready or whether we go with Paddy.
“It’s just a selection issue now. There is no doubt over his availability to play. Johnny gets picked like everyone else. He has no divine right to get picked. Will he get picked? That is a decision that has to be made. I am not trying to create any confusion. All I am saying is that there will be a decision made on the back of how he has performed over the last two days.”
Yet if it is an authentic selection decision ahead of tomorrow’s team announcement by head coach Joe Schmidt, Murphy made it pretty clearly where his vote would go and that was in favour of the more experienced Sexton.
“He’s been there, he’s seen it all. He was a Lions winning out-half, he’s won three Heineken Cups, he’s won a couple of Six Nations, so that experience is invaluable for a player. Paddy’s still only 24, numbers wise they’d add up pretty well, but it’s the bits in between.
“What makes a really good player? Is it what you see or other areas as well?
“It’s probably the case that ‘what you see’ is very similar, it’s probably that Paddy is still trying to learn and get better — which he is — at the bits you can’t see.”
Elaborating on the bits you can’t see, the skills coach added: “It’s communication, the reading of the game, the understanding that at one particular moment of the game what’s the right decision to make.
“And that decision could be based on many different reasons; it could be the conditions, the time of the game, what one defender is going to do differently to another, it’s very hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but Johnny’s just been in a position where he understands these things a little better than Paddy at the moment. But the gap is closing.
“Paddy has been brilliant. We have been very lucky that while Johnny has been out Paddy has been stepping in and filling that gap really well, since probably last summer. He has really stepped up to the mark and he’s improving all the time.
“He is still only 24 and Johnny was only getting capped for the first time at the age that Paddy is at now so he has worked really hard with Johnny off the pitch in order to help him drive things. It is starting to come to a stage where there are other options there.”
Sexton, 31, may have only played 130 minutes over three games since suffering a hamstring injury in the second game against the All Blacks last November but when the Leinster fly-half has been on the field, he has been at the top of his game, Murphy believes.
“He’s looked really good, I think Johnny’s in a very comfortable position, within himself, he knows there’s pressure on him to get out there and play, but when he’s out there, he’s very calm, controlled, communicating really well with guys around him.
“He’s able to pick the right option at the right time, and that’s the key — that’s the key to the best out-halves out there.”
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