Ireland captain Johnny Sexton is eagerly anticipating facing France for the first time in three years after declaring himself fit for Saturday’s “huge” Guinness Six Nations showdown.
The fly-half has undergone a head injury assessment (HIA) and overcome a dead leg suffered in the round-one win over Wales and hopes to avoid further late fitness “hiccups” ahead of a potential championship title decider in Dublin.
Reigning Grand Slam champions France are the only major nation yet to suffer defeat against Andy Farrell’s Ireland, with Sexton a late withdrawal ahead of the previous two meetings due to injury issues.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 8, 2023
The 37-year-old’s most recent outing against Les Bleus was a frustrating 35-27 defeat in Paris at the end of the prolonged 2020 tournament when he hit the headlines for his angry reaction to being substituted.
“I was saying this morning, the last two Wednesdays before France over the last two fixtures I’ve ended up pulling out, so to get through today is great,” said Sexton.
“I can look forward to the game, hopefully no more hiccups.
“Obviously the confusion around the HIA and stuff like that, there’s nothing I can control about that, but I’ll be ready to go for 80 this week if needed.
“It feels like a huge game. There’s no point in saying anything otherwise.
“You can’t just come in here and say ‘it’s just another game’ because it’s not, it’s one we’ve waited a long time for and I’ve read that they want this test – to come to the Aviva and try and overturn us. It’s a huge game.”
Ireland had to settle for the consolation of a Triple Crown last year following a 30-24 Stade de France defeat, which Sexton watched from the stands due to a hamstring problem.
In 2021, the veteran failed to satisfy return-to-play protocols ahead of a narrow 15-13 Dublin loss to Les Bleus, having been angered in the build-up by “highly inappropriate” comments from a French doctor about his concussion record.
The former Racing 92 player is braced for further disruptive headlines to emerge in the French media during the next few days.
“They are always big weeks, often for me something comes out of the woodwork in French week and I’m expecting something later in the week,” he said.
“It’s always a big game; I grew up in an era of watching Ireland lose to France, heavily, to then sort of see the first teams beating them and then to be part of teams beating them has been amazing.
“But you still have those memories from a young kid of France coming and demolishing Ireland. You probably naturally feel the underdog at my age, whereas the younger lads probably don’t. It’s a strange mixture in the squad.”
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 7, 2023
While Ireland, who top the world rankings, cantered to a 34-10 victory in Cardiff on matchday one, France were less convincing in a stuttering 29-24 success over Italy which stretched their impressive winning streak to 14 games.
Les Bleus fly-half Romain Ntamack this week claimed the Irish are “comfortably favourites” for the weekend, an assessment Sexton had little desire to discuss.
“I don’t really mind, the favourites tag is not something we mention internally,” he said
“Being number one in the world, the public or the press will do it or the opposition will, but it comes down to the performance on the day.
“If we’re favourites, we’re favourites. It doesn’t really bother me if that’s what he says.”