Following the frustration of missing out on the game against France, Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton is fit and raring to go for Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations encounter with Italy in Rome.
Having suffered a head injury during the closing stages of the defeat to Wales, Sexton was then ruled out of contention for the visit of the French to Dublin on February 14.
In his absence, Billy Burns and Ross Byrne shared the out-half duties as Ireland fell to an agonising 15-13 loss at the Aviva Stadium.
Sexton has since made a full recovery and, if selected, will make his 97th Test appearance for Ireland and the fiftieth of his Six Nations career.
“Available for selection,” he proclaimed at a remote press conference from the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown earlier today.
“Obviously was very disappointed to miss out on the French game. It was a game that I really wanted to play in, but just didn’t quite get there.
“Didn’t hit the return-to-play protocol markers (that week). Had to wait a little bit longer and was back training fully last week and fully this week. Good to go.”
Despite having to maintain a watching brief on the day, Sexton was heavily involved in the post mortem to the France match, which leaves Ireland still seeking their first win in this year’s tournament.
While acknowledging the positive of being within one score of their in-form opponents, Sexton accepted there is considerable scope for improvement ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Azzurri.
In my opinion, we’ve created a lot at times. We haven’t taken some of them. At times, we’re missing opportunities to put the ball into space,” he explained.
Very early on in the French game, there was a few chances where we needed to shift the ball and there was other times that we shifted it well into space. Then the space closed up and we should have put it in behind.
“There’s lots of examples that we’ve gone through as a team and with individuals in small groups and we said it wasn’t good enough for international standard.
“Despite all those things, we still came within a penalty from winning the game and there’s a few penalties in that last phase of play that we could have gotten. In terms of offsides and stuff like that.
“That’s the frustrating thing, but the things we can control is being better at seeing the space and when we do create the opportunities, that we make the most of them and we’re clinical.
“It will be the same against Italy. The coaches have come in and they’ve done a fantastic job. It’s very different to what it was before, but we will be better for this going forward. Of that I’m convinced.
“If we talk about World Cup cycles, I might not be a part of the full cycle, but this group will definitely be better for this type of coaching and structures.”
Although his current contract runs out at the end of this season, Sexton is set to ink a new deal that will extend his playing career on these shores until at least the summer of 2022 – just a year out from the Rugby World Cup in France.
While the thought of him not being around in 2023 may suggest a change in mindset from Sexton, the 35-year-old insists he has always had a realistic outlook as to when his career will draw to a close.
“It has been other people that have sort of thrown fuel on the fire. Isa (Nacewa) telling people I could play until I was 40, 41.
“I’ve always been of the same position. I absolutely love what I do. I’m very privileged to do it. I’m still loving it and I’ll keep playing for now, but that has never changed.
“I’ve spoken about admiration for athletes that have stayed at the top of their game for a long time. You’ve got to be careful with what I’ve said or what someone else said. It can get lost a bit.
“For the moment, I’m still motivated. I hope that my team-mates and coaches see how motivated I am to train well every day and to keep going.
“You can be 24 or 25 years of age and get an injury, and you’re finished. At the moment, I’m contracted for this season and nearly contracted for next season. Hopefully I’ll stay and we’ll see what happens.”
For now, Sexton is concentrating on opening Ireland’s win account for the 2021 Six Nations. Italy will also be searching for their maiden victory of the campaign, having lost out to France and England in recent weeks.
Having already used 27 players across the Wales and France fixtures, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell may well look to give more of his squad game-time in Rome.
For Sexton, this adds an extra layer of motivation to their training sessions. He hopes it will drive forward those who are lucky enough to make the matchday 23, adding:
We’re very focused on trying to get some better performances out there and cohesion. The better performances will hopefully lead to better results and that’s all we’re focused on.
“Maybe Andy will change a few players, I don’t know. There was a couple of changes, we were changing in and out a lot today. Selection is very much still up for grabs.
“No team has been announced in this environment yet. It really adds to training because guys are competing with each other and guys are fighting for places. It was a good day today. A good start to the week.
“We had a good day yesterday and a big day tomorrow. Our big training day tomorrow. The team will be announced and then it will be over to Rome. Hopefully a good performance and a result.”