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Ireland v France: Sexton's past record convinced Schmidt to drop Jackson

By Jonathan Bradley

On Tuesday it was said that Johnny Sexton had "no divine right to selection" in Ireland's No.10 jersey but, if there was ever any doubt, the out-half hierarchy was made perfectly clear in Carton House yesterday.

Joe Schmidt revealed his team for tomorrow's clash with France (4.50pm kick-off) to the media at the team's County Kildare training base and, as expected, his 2013 Lion Sexton was straight back into the side having missed the opening two rounds of the Six Nations Championship.

In the Leinsterman's absence, Ulster ace Paddy Jackson has impressed against Scotland and Italy, just as he did when called upon against South Africa, Australia and off the bench against the All Blacks since the summer of 2016.

None of that, it would appear, is going to be enough to wrest control of a starting position in the immediate future.

With his stellar track record, and despite an increasing number of soft tissue injuries, if Sexton is fit to play, he will be Schmidt's preferred choice.

"It was a call like any other, we debated it and we believe we have a good balance with both available to us this week," said the head coach.

"It's very hard to come into a side and then come off the bench. Johnny had more training time with the team this week as opposed to Paddy, who is reasonably comfortable. It is a balance.

"We will probably see both players in some positions at some stage of the game.

"We have no concerns with Johnny's fitness, he has done a lot of conditioning.

"Fitness is never an issue for him, he is fully fit, he has trained well all week and is highly motivated to get back into the game."

In recent campaigns, France have made no secret of the fact that they have tried to rattle Sexton with some physical treatment, and both two seasons ago in Dublin and last year's clash in Paris saw a number of heavy hits dished out.

"We know it is going to be physical," said Schmidt. "Two years ago, he came back in and got some fairly physical impacts after not playing for 12 weeks. He was super.

"You base your decisions on what they have done in the past, he has done it in the past and he is more likely to replicate it. He is confident and that gives us confidence as well.

"He was frustrated missing the first two Championship games this season and he is excited by the opportunity.

"He takes a fair bit of responsibility, he has leadership and Paddy is developing that as well."

While flagged in advance this week, it will be another disappointing selection decision for Jackson, who has had to work hard to earn Schmidt's trust.

He was barely used at the World Cup, appearing in only one contest, and saw Ian Madigan selected as Sexton's back-up for every Six Nations encounter last year.

And while it appears he has never put more pressure on the incumbent, returning to the bench will still no doubt sting.

Schmidt, however, said that the 25-year-old took the decision in his stride.

"It is great having two players like that because that is what you need," said the Kiwi.

"Paddy took the decision with a smile and said, 'I'll be ready when you need me from the bench'."

The out-half situation could become even more competitive in months to come, with Madigan seeking a release from his contract at Bordeaux.

Despite guiding the side to two wins over Ulster in this season's Champions Cup, it hasn't worked out for the former Leinsterman in the Top 14, and a return to either Ireland or the Aviva Premiership is on the cards.

He hasn't been selected for national duty since a late call-up for the tour to South Africa, with Joey Carbery having emerged as another option.

Yesterday, Schmidt also had his say on Madigan's situation.

"I've had a number of discussions with him," he revealed.

"I respect him and he adds a lot. He is contracted and when you are contracted you have sold your rugby skills and he will honour that and until that time comes, we won't push anything. It will be led by Ian himself."

With Jackson wearing the No.22 jersey, he will be joined on the bench by his Ulster team-mates Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble.

With Rob Kearney having recovered from a bicep injury, the back-three will be unchanged meaning Trimble's own return from the groin problem that kept him out from the opening rounds will come as a replacement.

Henderson, who started against Scotland but had a groin problem for Italy, was not able to oust Donnacha Ryan from the engine room.

Schmidt, however, has said that he expects his bench players to have a big impact on the game.

"We really hope the replacements are primed, because the French replacements are very strong and the last 30 minutes will be as keenly contested as the first 30 minutes," he said.

"We have a good mix of young, enthusiastic players and experienced players like Andrew Trimble who is excited to be back.

"It's great to have a full squad, we would have liked a bit more rhythm and we are not as cohesive as we would have liked to be.

"In my first Six Nations, we only used 17 starters which helped but this season we have had to mix and match."

Teams for Ireland v France: R Kearney: K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, T Furlong; D Toner, D Ryan; CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Replacements: N Scannell, C Healy, J Ryan, I Henderson, P O'Mahony, K Marmion, P Jackson, A Trimble.

France: S Spedding (Clermont Auvergne); N Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvergne), R Lamerat (Clermont Auvergne), G Fickou (Toulouse), Y Huget (Toulouse); C Lopez (Clermont Auvergne), B Serin (Bordeaux-Begles); C Baille (Toulouse), G Guirado (Toulon, capt), R Slimani (Stade Francais), S V Vahaamahina (Clermont Auvergne), Y Maestri (Toulouse), Bernard Le Roux (Racing 92), K Gourdon (La Rochelle), L Picamoles (Northampton).

Replacements: C Tolofua (Toulouse), U Antonio (La Rochelle), E Ben Arous (Racing 92), J Le Devedec (Brive), C Ollivon (Toulon), M Machenaud (Racing 92), H Chavancy (Racing 92), D Camara (Stade Francais).

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