Sexton setback shakes Ireland's Six Nations preparations

As reverberations go, this was not on the level of Donald Trump’s election as US president nor that June morning the Brexit referendum result came in.

Yet the revelation Johnny Sexton will not be available for Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations opener at Murrayfield on Saturday brought quite a reaction.

The stock market did not slide and neither did politicians resign in their droves but bookmakers and supporters immediately recalibrated their assessments of what Ireland are capable of in this season’s Championship.

For more emotional sorts, the news that the tightness felt on Monday in the calf muscle of Ireland’s first-choice No. 10 would prevent Joe Schmidt’s team from travelling to Scotland without its world-class playmaker was akin to a calamity.

Munster captain and flanker Peter O’Mahony was also yesterday ruled out with a tight hamstring while Andrew Trimble sat out training due to a groin issue, although the Ulster wing remains a doubt rather than a definite non-starter.

They were the only three who sat out yesterday’s main training session at Carton House, Kildare in front of a watching Lions head coach Warren Gatland. While Sexton’s absence for treatment was met with alarm outside the camp, the Ireland management has had to be more pragmatic.

Warren Gatland

They have become used to making do without Sexton, 30, and believe it is in the player’s and the team’s best interests to rest the out-half this weekend in order to get him right for the remaining four games.

They also now feel that next in line Paddy Jackson has proved himself in the last nine months to be a more than able deputy, directing an injury-hit squad with aplomb to a first Test victory in South Africa on tour last June and also leading Ireland to success over Australia with an impressive 80-minute performance in Dublin at the end of last November’s Guinness Series.

As such, he is the incumbent and will continue his half-back combination with senior partner Conor Murray while Sexton is left to lick his wounds once more.

“Disappointment, like any player would be,” assistant coach Simon Easterby said of Sexton’s mood. “They feel like they are in contention to play an international game. He is no different to any other player: When they are at this level, they want to get the opportunity to go out and perform.

“Unfortunately he is unable to do that. Clearly disappointment from his end but also understanding that the decision was a joint one based on how he was feeling but also based on what was best for him over the coming weeks.”

Having limped out of the second Test against New Zealand last November with a hamstring complaint, head coach Schmidt said he wanted his prize asset to be given more time out in order to become more robust.

Yet even the best-laid plans can come unstuck and the calf strain he picked up with Leinster against Castres two weeks ago has now eaten into Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.

So Jackson will continue at 10, making his first Six Nations start since his rookie campaign in 2013, when his Ireland debut came at Murrayfield.

Ian Keatley, whose last Test appearance came in round one of the 2015 Championship in Rome when both Sexton and Jackson were injured, has been training with the squad for a week and he appears set to battle it out with uncapped Munster team-mate Rory Scannell for the bench spot as back-up out-half.

Is it a (Carton) house of cards or have Ireland really built the strong foundations in terms of squad depth?

Easterby, understandably believes the latter, that the current group of players can provide the green jersey with plenty of dependable and consistent quality in the absence of frontline starters and that the sort of bare bones exhibited in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final debacle against Argentina will not be exposed again.

“We have shown with the inclusion of Paddy, who went well in the summer and then Joey Carbery, who went well in the autumn, if a player like Johnny is unavailable and the same for players in other positions that we have more depth to push other guys through.

“That is your ultimate goal as a squad, that you build depth in every position. It’s not always perfect and it’s not always going to be like for like but you want to try and make sure the gap between those guys who are dropping out and those guys who are coming in is much smaller and I think we are getting there.

“You have to be able to get through those times when you haven’t a full deck to choose from and we’ve started to build those areas where we maybe had a bit of weakness in. Going back to the World Cup, when we lost five or six key players, we probably didn’t fill those key positions with like for like.

“You’re not always going to be able to, but the more we get exposure for players both at provincial level and international level, then it’s always going to help us moving forward when we do lose players through injury.”

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