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Schmidt: Sexton set to face Italy

Ireland have no conflict of interest with Racing Metro over fly-half Johnny Sexton, according to head coach Joe Schmidt.

Sexton has beaten a thumb ligament strain in time to win selection for Ireland's RBS 6 Nations clash with Italy in Dublin on Saturday.

The 28-year-old proved his fitness by training fully on Thursday, ahead of Ireland's penultimate Six Nations fixture, where Brian O'Driscoll will set a new world record for Test appearances by reaching 140.

Racing threw Sexton's Six Nations into doubt by last week predicting the thumb injury sustained in 13-10 England defeat could last anywhere from 10 days to six weeks.

Ireland bosses quickly rejected that assessment, a move that has now been vindicated with Sexton's selection to face Italy.

"I have absolutely no concerns about selecting Johnny, he is fully fit," said Schmidt.

"It was a sprained thumb, and he finished the [England] game.

"There was bruising, and it's gone."

Racing flogged big-money recruit Sexton with 13 games in 10 weeks in the autumn, leading to a hamstring injury that left Schmidt to admit Ireland had "lost control" of their star playmaker.

Ireland chiefs have struggled to foster relations with Paris club Racing's coaching staff, but Schmidt has now rejected any problem.

"Racing have been pretty good value, they understand Johnny's a pretty important shared resource," said Schmidt, keen to avoid any conflict with Sexton's Top 14 club side.

"I think one of the things is there's a bit of distance.

"There were some discussions with [Racing coach] Laurent Labit who was not in the country."

Versatile Ulster forward Iain Henderson will win his ninth cap and first Six Nations start against the Azzurri, replacing Peter O'Mahony at blindside flanker.

The 22-year-old back-five forward slots in with boss Schmidt not risking Munster captain O'Mahony, who failed to come through training on Thursday.

Iconic centre O'Driscoll will make his final Dublin appearance in Ireland colours this weekend ahead of his summer retirement, with captain Paul O'Connell branding the 35-year-old "embarrassed" by the world's gaze.

Munster lock O'Connell light-heartedly admitted Ireland would hold their talisman midfielder that little bit tighter, on his last-ever Ireland turn at the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland, France, Wales and England can all yet claim the championship crown.

O'Connell said O'Driscoll is desperate not to let his final throes conflict with Ireland's aims of pushing towards that still-attainable Six Nations title.

"There's been nothing specific said, he's a bit embarrassed by it all," said O'Connell.

"I suppose he's working hard on looking after his body, so he just wants to focus on that.

"He's a quiet guy, an understated guy, he's a bit embarrassed and he just wants to focus on finishing as well as he can, without any distractions.

"The whole thing is definitely in the back of your mind, it's hard to get away from, with the papers and the media.

"It's hard to think what life will be like without him, but at the moment there's been very little mention of it from staff, players or Brian himself, and I'm sure that's the way he'd like it."

Former Leinster coach Schmidt admitted Munster flanker O'Mahony has been held back for the Six Nations closer against France in Paris on Saturday, March 15.

"If this was the last game of the Six Nations we might have risked Peter," said Schmidt. " But there was a risk.

"He didn't train today, and that was the difference.

"If he'd trained fully we would have included him but he wasn't able.

"I'd be really confident for him about Paris next week."


From Belfast Telegraph