Joe Schmidt insists Johnny Sexton can still “dominate” the RBS 6 Nations despite revealing the injury-plagued stand-off could miss a third of Ireland’s campaign.
Paddy Jackson will run Ireland’s backline in Saturday’s tournament opener against Scotland at Murrayfield, with British and Irish Lions playmaker Sexton still battling calf trouble. Head coach Schmidt has admitted Sexton remains a long-shot to recover in time for Ireland’s trip to Italy on Saturday, February 11.
Sexton missed Ireland’s summer series in South Africa after shoulder surgery, and has since suffered hamstring and calf issues - but Ireland boss Schmidt remains unfazed by that sequence of setbacks.
“Johnny Sexton is an outside chance for Italy,” said Schmidt. “There’s no one more frustrated than Johnny himself. He was incredibly motivated for this championship.
“For us it’s a real frustration. In the Six Nations campaigns that I’ve been involved in, Johnny has dominated our number 10 position, so we’re still hopeful he can come back in.
“But, at the same time, Paddy Jackson has done really well. Paddy played all three Tests against South Africa, he played against Australia and came off the bench for Johnny against the All Blacks, so it’s not like he hasn’t had good experience.”
Sexton suffered his calf injury in Leinster’s 24-24 Champions Cup draw at Castres on January 20, but Ireland were confident – outwardly at least – that their pivotal playmaker would recover to face Scotland.
That all changed on Monday afternoon though when the 31-year-old pulled up in training, with Ulster’s Jackson stepping into the hot-seat and Munster’s Ian Keatley drafted in from the cold as cover.
Keith Earls will start on the wing, with Andrew Trimble ruled out through groin trouble. Munster hooker Niall Scannell could make his Test debut off the bench, with John Ryan preferred to Finlay Bealham as the back-up tighthead.
Donnacha Ryan misses out with a minor knee problem, leaving Iain Henderson partnering Devin Toner at lock with Ultan Dillane on the bench.
Munster stand-off Keatley is primed for his first Ireland action since the February 2015 victory in Italy, as boss Schmidt has again overlooked Bordeaux’s Ian Madigan. Schmidt insisted Ireland have not altered their policy of favouring home-based players for Test selection in ignoring ex-Leinster No 10 Madigan.
“We are incredibly keen to support the provinces,” said Schmidt. “If we demonstrate that we are happy to pick players from outside of Ireland, then potentially one of the big draw cards for keeping them here will be lifted, and players will be more likely to go overseas.”