Jonathan Sexton will be hoping referee Nigel Owens can offer him protection this weekend from French heads and elbows that have previously left him battered and bruised.
Ireland are bracing themselves for another intensely physical contest France when the Six Nations rivals clash in Cardiff on Sunday to decide who wins the World Cup Pool D.
And for fly-half Sexton, that means another potentially bruising encounter with French powerhouse centre Mathieu Bastareaud.
A clash of heads in contact with the Toulon juggernaut during last season’s Valentine’s Day clash at the Aviva Stadium left Sexton, who had just returned from a precautionary 12-week stand-down period due to successive concussions, with a cut above his eye that quickly developed into a nasty shiner.
That was with Sexton being tackled by Bastareaud but the previous year the Ireland star was knocked out attempting to halt the Frenchman’s carry after being struck with a leading elbow and, speaking yesterday, the Ireland fly-half was asked to think about his defensive work having been told his former teammate Shane Horgan had expressed concern about the former Racing Metro star’s high tackle technique.
“I’m happy enough with my defence,” Sexton said. “Obviously I respect Shane’s opinion, I was his teammate for years and we had some great times together, we also had a lot of run-ins together... but I do respect his opinion.
“I think it’s been spoken about last year when I came back from a couple of head knocks that I need to tackle lower, but your head is just as exposed when you go low as it is when you go high, I think.
“The only thing I’d say is that when you go high, you’d expect the referees to keep an eye out for leading elbows or leading heads, and I think it’s up to the referees to look after that rather than me having to worry about it.”
Nigel Owens takes charge on Sunday and Sexton’s reunion with Bastareaud in Cardiff this weekend will be keenly watched. The out-half is fully aware France will send the centre down his defensive channel.
“He’s a hard man to stop and I know it better than most. I’ve come off second best a couple of times but he sucks in a lot of defenders and he looks like he’s got himself in really good shape.
“It’s the same for all their players, I think they possess power all across their backline and pace to burn as well. So we’ve got to be on top of our game from that point of view, and I’m sure we’ll come up with some kind of plan to help us stop him.
“They said before the last game they were going to come down my channel, because I was obviously coming back from a lay-off, and I don’t see it being any different this time. You always want to target the opposition 10 and I’m sure they’ll go there again. I don’t know if I like the physicality, but it’s part and parcel of the modern game.”
Sexton did warn against putting too much focus on Bastareaud at the risk of ignoring other talents in the France backline, particularly after Ireland’s below-par performance in overcoming Italy last Sunday to secure a quarter-final berth ahead of the final pool game. The 16-9 win was hard-fought against a resurgent Italian side and Sexton suggested he and his team-mates had to ask themselves plenty of searching questions ahead of this Sunday’s showdown.
“They’ve got players across the park that can hurt us so we’ve got to be a hell of a lot better than we were yesterday.
“I think we tried to prepare the best we could and I think we did that but when a team that has played I would say poorly for three or four games previously and has had some poor results – maybe, I don’t know, I can only speak for myself but I knew it was going to be a tough game but did everyone? I don’t know.
“We’re going to have to ask ourselves those questions this week. Did we fall into that trap a bit that we thought we were going to play against the Italy team that played France or Scotland in the warm-up games, where they lost both games?
“We tried to look at the Welsh game because Parisse makes such a big difference to them and that was the last game he played and that was a pretty close game against a Welsh team in the Millennium Stadium. I’d hope that we wouldn’t have been complacent but maybe it’s a question we have to ask ourselves at the start of this week.”
The Irish Examiner’s Rugby Correspondent Simon Lewis gives his views on Ireland after their RWC clash with Italy at the Olympic Stadium. Video by Dan Linehan.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved