Maynooth - Standout
flyhalf Johnny Sexton will start his first match for Ireland since
limping off against New Zealand last November in the Six Nations clash
at home to France on Saturday.
The 31-year-old - whose last game was five weeks ago when he
suffered a calf strain playing for Irish province Leinster against
French club Castres - came in for Paddy Jackson in the team announced
by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt at the squad's training base on Thursday.
Jackson, who because of Sexton's unavailability has started five of Ireland's last seven Tests, drops to the bench.
"He (Sexton) says he is fit and he is highly motivated to get into it (the Six Nations)," said Schmidt.
"He was frustrated at missing the first two matches. It is important to have him back because he is a leader.
"That is something Paddy is developing."
Sexton's return to the starting XV is one of three changes to the side that thrashed Italy 63-10 a fortnight ago.
Hooker Rory Best returns as captain - after seeing his run of 51
successive Six Nations appearances ended by a stomach bug for the Italy
game - whilst Schmidt has opted for prop Jack McGrath instead of
veteran front-row Cian Healy.
The latter drops to the bench which also sees fit-again Iain
Henderson - replacing Ultan Dillane - flank Peter O'Mahony, who is
recalled with Josh van der Flier injured, and wing Andrew Trimble coming
Trimble replaces his Ulster team-mate Craig Gilroy, who can count
himself unfortunate after scoring a hat-trick of tries in the Italy
Sexton - whose last full 80 minute display came on October 1 - has
shown before that lack of activity doesn't affect his performance in big
In 2015 he returned from a three-month absence and slotted over five
penalties in Ireland's 18-11 win against France in the Six Nations.
However, in the years since he has seemed increasingly fragile and in
the corresponding match last year in Paris - the French edging the
encounter 10-9 - was subject to some heavy hits early on which left
Ireland angry at the lack of action by the referee.
Schmidt said his opting for Sexton over Jackson was in part down to what the former had done two years ago.
"You base it on the past and if they have come back and played well then they are more likely to replicate it in the future."
Outside Sexton this weekend will be the youthful but burgeoning
centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose which is already
being compared to the successful Irish midfield alliance of Brian
O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.
Ireland and France go into Saturday's match at Dublin's Lansdowne
Road having both won one and lost one in their two matches so far in the
tournament, although the Irish are a point better off than the French
thanks to accruing two bonus points to their opponents' one.
The French, though, beat Ireland's conquerors Scotland last time out with a 22-16 victory in Paris.
15 Rob Kearney; 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo; 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 CJ Stander; 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan; 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Jack McGrath
Substitutes: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O'Mahony, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Andrew Trimble
15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Bernard le Roux, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Cyril Baille
Substitutes: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Xavier Chiocci, 19 Julian Le Devedec, 20 Charles Ollivon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Henry Chavancy, 23 Djibril Camara