Team captain Paul O’Connell has praised the return of out-half Jonathan Sexton to the Ireland fold ahead of Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations showdown with France.
Jonathan Sexton was instrumental in last November’s victories over South Africa and Australia as well as the triumphant 2014 RBS 6 Nations campaign. And while his absence was an opportunity to increase the depth in the Ireland squad, Paul O’Connell believes now that he is back from his concussion lay-off, the out-half’s presence will bolster the side as they take on France.
“It’s great. Johnny has been training the last few weeks, he has been around. The injury has given us a chance to broaden the squad, for lads to get more experience, but it’s great to have a guy of his experience back in the side,” O’Connell said of Sexton’s return in the number 10 jersey.
“He’s a Lion, he’s played for Ireland however many times, he’s an incredible player, he’s very aware of how Joe (Schmidt) wants things done having worked under him for a long time.
“So, it’s great to have him back in the side. Johnny’s a really good professional, he enjoys his training. While he wasn’t able to train very hard in his earlier days of being out, he’s treated the break as a bit of a mini pre-season as well.”
Despite the fact that France have failed to win away from home against a ‘major team’ so far during Philippe Saint-André’s coaching tenure, O’Connell knows how dangerous they can be. His personal record against the French reads played 14, won 2, draw 1 and lost 11.
Having been a pass away from possibly beating Ireland in Paris last March, les Bleus will be looking for some revenge in Dublin. With the French management and players stating that they will look to target Sexton from the off, O’Connell says he is used to that treatment for his number 10.
Giving his assessment of the selected French team, the Limerick man insisted: “Potentially, they are as good as any French side we’ve played. All across the park they seem to have talent, skill, power.
“I know Joe is a big fan of (Yoann) Huget. When you hear how much he fancies certain players, there’s a lot of this French team in there. (Wesley) Fofana and (Mathieu) Bastareaud as well. I think (Camille) Lopez has been excellent in recent months.
“I played in a team with ROG (Ronan O’Gara) for many years where teams knew how important he was to us and always attacked the 10 channel. It is every team’s focus to attack the 10 channel, it’s where a team’s playmaker is and it’s part and parcel of the game. France can attack us anywhere and attacking the 10 channel is nothing new.”
His words were echoed by scrum coach Greg Feek who explained that the Ireland medical team and S&C staff have diligently looked after Sexton in the time he has been in camp. Similarly, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy all return to the matchday 23 this week.
“We’ve got brilliant medical staff and strength and conditioning staff, and we all work together on that process. Then the players themselves are involved in that. When is the right time? What is the right game? That’s the big question mark,” the New Zealander said of bringing players back into the team.
“We felt this was it. He (Johnny) did everything he needed to do, so it’s a credit to the player to be available at this point as well. Those guys have worked hard and it’s been a long time for some of them that they haven’t played.
“They are champing at the bit but sometimes you have got to control that too, just make sure you don’t rein them in, but let them go.”