Six Nations

Schmidt gambles on Sexton

2015-02-12 16:28
Jonathan Sexton (AFP)

Dublin - Ireland flyhalf Jonathan Sexton will play his first game in 12 weeks after national coach Joe Schmidt took a gamble to start him in the defending champion's Six Nations clash with France on Saturday at Lansdowne Road.

The 29-year-old - who has not played since the victory over Australia on 22 November after suffering a third concussion in a calendar year - replaces Ian Keatley, who played in the opening 26-3 victory over Italy last Saturday.

Schmidt, who has turned Ireland's fortunes round since he replaced Declan Kidney in 2013, denied he was taking a risk by selecting Sexton.

"He would have been as much of a risk to start as anyone else," said 49-year-old Schmidt.

"He's very fit, he's ready to go.

"He's been training for 12 weeks the only thing he has not been doing till this week is contact training.

"But that is long enough. He is fresh. I did not contemplate starting him on the bench.

"It is a misconception to say he is not fully fit.

"I don't think if he drops off during the game it will be down to cardiovascular fitness."

Schmidt, who knows several of the French players intimately having spent time as present Scotland handler Vern Cotter's number two at Top 14 side Clermont, said that he didn't think the French would target Sexton relentlessly through their barrel-chested powerhouse centre Mathieu Bastareaud.

"No doubt they'll use the narrow channel but I would be surprised that they would deprive themselves of the opportunity to deploy their speed men (Yoann) Huget and (Teddy) Thomas out wide," said the New Zealander.

Indeed Schmidt said he was more concerned as to how to contain Bastareaud.

"Jeez it takes three players to take him down," he said.

"One to slow him down, one to go high and one to go low to drag him down!"

Fellow veterans No8 Jamie Heaslip and flanker Sean O'Brien also return to the starting XV, the former after recovering from shoulder and knee injuries and the latter will play his first Test since the heroic loss to world champions New Zealand in November 2013.

O'Brien, who has played just 50 minutes of rugby since September last, would have played in the Italy game but for feeling a pain in his hamstring in the match warm-up.

Schmidt, who guided Irish province Leinster to two European Cup successes, said the experienced trio would add something to the side from the one that beat the Italians.

"On the one hand with so many guys returning to the fold we may not be as fluent as we would like to be," said Schmidt.

"However these three guys have 130 caps between them and have that experience to extricate themselves from difficult positions because they have learnt from past experiences.

"Their return builds a bit of confidence and brings extra leadership to the team."

The player who replaced O'Brien in the starting line-up for the Italy game Tommy O'Donnell like Keatley did little wrong in the match - indeed the former scored a try - but both drop out of the matchday 23.

Rory Best - Ireland's most capped hooker - is able to start after being taken off early in the second-half of the Italy game with concussion.

There is a recall to the bench for the experienced prop Cian Healy, who hasn't played test rugby since Ireland clinched the Six Nations title, on icon Brian O'Driscoll's final international, with victory over the French in Paris last March.

Ireland are bidding to win their ninth successive match against a France team who also started the Six Nations with victory, at home to Scotland, but who have won just three times away from home since coach Philippe Saint-Andre took over after the 2011 World Cup final.

However, the last three games between the two sides have been tight affairs, two draws before Ireland - who will be captained by legendary lock Paul O'Connell winning his 98th cap - prevailed 22-20 in Paris.

Teams:

Ireland

15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (captain), 4 Devin Toner; 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath

Substitutes: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones

France

15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Bernard Le Roux, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (captain), 5 Pascal Pape, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Rabah Slimani,2  Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous

Substitutes: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Remi Tales, 23 Remi Lamerat

Read more on:    six nations  |  jonathan sexton  |  rugby
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