6N: Sexton’s return boosts Ireland for France’s visit

FILE - In this Saturday Sept. 19. 2015 file photo, Ireland's Jonathan Sexton looks on during their Rugby World Cup Pool D match at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Star flyhalf Jonathan Sexton is fit for Ireland in time for France's visit to Dublin in the Six Nations on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. Sexton hasn't played rugby in more than a month but his coach is confident he can rebound quickly, like he has before. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, file)

DUBLIN (AP) Jonathan Sexton did it once. He can do it twice.

That’s the total belief Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has in choosing his star flyhalf, who hasn’t played rugby in more than a month, and hasn’t played for Ireland in more than three months.

A calf strain has sidelined Sexton for five weeks but he’s been training fully since Tuesday, when skills coach Richie Murphy said he didn’t have a ”divine right to get picked.”

But there was no chance of Sexton backing up Paddy Jackson once the former was cleared fit to face France on Saturday at Lansdowne Road in the Six Nations.

Schmidt remembers when Sexton came back from an enforced 12-week suspension in 2015 because of concussion, and masterminded an 18-11 win over France, including five penalties.

”He got some physical impacts that day and he hadn’t played for 12 weeks, and he was super,” Schmidt says.

”That’s part of what you base your decision-making on: What have people done in the past? Can they replicate that in the future? If they’ve done it in the past, they’re more likely to replicate it.

”We are confident, Jonny’s confident as well. That’s important.”

Schmidt still thinks Jackson will have a role on Saturday. Jackson has been piloting Ireland since Sexton was injured in the first half against the All Blacks in Dublin in November. Jackson scored a try against Scotland, and a record nine conversions against Italy. He’s made 12 of his 13 goalkicks.

Sexton’s return wasn’t the only good news for the Irish. Captain and hooker Rory Best was back after dropping out of the Italy match because of a stomach bug, and loosehead prop Jack McGrath was swapped back in for Cian Healy.

The scrum promises to be a pivotal contest. Both sides mashed up Scotland in the area and earned penalties from the set-piece, but should find it harder against the other.

France has decided to start Rabah Slimani at tighthead prop instead of Uini Atonio, who will finish.

”I’m expecting the players on the bench to act like they’re in the first team,” France coach Guy Noves says. ”We’ve made strategic choices, bearing in mind what the bench can bring during the game, and with the idea being that our players are better than the ones on their bench, so that we can make the difference.”

Backup prop Eddy Ben Arous, who is returning from a calf injury, believes the rucks will be key.

”The slightest little mistake or even being a fraction of a second late can turn the match,” he says. ”If we hope to win, we’re absolutely going to have to be strong in this area, one that the Irish really like and work so hard at.”

The French have usually owned the Irish but have won in Dublin only once in 10 years.


Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Jack McGrath. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Kieran Marmion, Paddy Jackson, Andrew Trimble.

France: Scott Spedding, Yoann Huget, Remi Lamerat, Gael Fickou, Noa Nakaitaci, Camille Lopez, Baptiste Serin; Louis Picamoles, Kevin Gourdon, Bernard Le Roux, Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Cyril Baille. Reserves: Christopher Tolofua, Uini Atonio, Eddy Ben Arous, Julien Le Devedec, Charles Ollivon, Maxime Machenaud, Henry Chavancy, Djibril Camara.