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Carbery making great strides but Sexton remains first choice

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

There were a number of selection dilemmas awaiting Joe Schmidt as he returned to Portugal from London last night but it appears out-half remains a clear-cut decision.

According to the coach, Johnny Sexton trained fully at Quinta do Lago on Tuesday and is expected to come through today's full-on session ahead of the Six Nations opener against England.

The Leinster man last played against Munster on December 29, but the coach is upbeat on his chances of overcoming a knee tendon injury in time for the Aviva Stadium clash on Saturday week.

Sexton engaged in something of a running battle with Joey Carbery on a fraught night at Thomond Park and, having impressed since leaving Leinster to get more game time, there is an increasing sense that he will be in a position to challenge the 33-year-old in the not-too-distant future.

Indeed, Carbery outlined his ambition to "overtake him (Sexton), not just wait for him to stop" in an interview with the New Zealand Herald last weekend. And, while the 23-year-old may have to be patient, his coach is positive about the work he is doing.

"I don't think there is ever a master/apprentice (relationship)," Schmidt said. "We have a degree of hierarchy because we have a captain, a vice-captain, a leadership group but there's no hierarchy in training or when it comes to people making good decisions and training well and putting their best foot forward.

"He (Sexton) trained yesterday. It was quiet yesterday, we didn't do too much but Thursday he's scheduled to train fully and we'll train hard on Thursday. Thursday is a big day for us, a brief run on Friday and then we'll give them the weekend off and try to hit the ground running next week.

"Joey has done really well. He's still learning. There's still parts of his game, even chatting to him yesterday, that he's really looking forward to trying to work on. He was even doing a little bit of work with Richie (Murphy) this morning with his kicking out of hand, but he's kicked really well out of hand.

"He had a tough game in Castres but since then he's got 20 out of 20, when the push came to shove against Exeter and he had to get that kick - and it was a tough enough kick, there was a bit of distance to it, and the circumstances in the game at the time - I thought he kicked that really well. He's obviously got an athleticism.

"He ran away and he scored a couple of really good tries this season. I think he's growing his role at bringing other people into the game.

"That's a pivotal part of the No.10, bring other people into the game, take the game to the opposition and vary it up, and he's doing those things. So he's doing a good job of that."

Schmidt also praised Jack Carty's contribution at Connacht, while he recognised Ross Byrne's performance against Wasps after he was left out and Billy Burns' efforts with Ulster.

Schmidt lamented the loss of second-rows Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne for the first couple of games. He hopes to have Beirne back for the third-round clash with Italy, but Henderson is in a race to be fit for the final two games after his finger operation - although is a quick healer.

"To lose those two guys is disappointing," Schmidt said. "Dev (Toner) has only had one game since coming back from injury, so where we thought we were going to have positive headaches, it's not quite the same now.

"But I think Quinn Roux probably played as well as he's ever played for us in November and missed out on the (initial) squad. He'll be hugely motivated.

"Ultan Dillane, his last game against Sale, I thought he was really outstanding, physically bustling through and kind of the repeated efforts he brought to the game was really impressive."

England captain Owen Farrell said he was confident he'll be fit to face Ireland despite undergoing thumb surgery last week.

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