Schmidt hails Sexton’s playmaking skills as Ireland stay on track for Six Nations title decider
Fly-half back from injury to kick 11 of Ireland’s 19 points against France
Johnny Sexton’s masterful performance in returning from a five-week injury break to steer Ireland to a 19-9 win over France came as no surprise to coach Joe Schmidt.
The 31-year-old fly-half kicked 11 points to keep alive Ireland’s Six Nations title hopes and will be expected to do it all again against Wales in a fortnight.
Victory in Cardiff, against a Wales side whose title hopes disappeared with a 29-13 defeat by Scotland on Saturday, could set up a potential title-decider against defending champions England in Dublin next month.
Eddie Jones’s defending grand slam champions play Italy at Twickenham on Sunday and then host the resurgent Scots in Dublin next month.
“Based on experience it is not the first time he [Sexton] has done it,” said Schmidt. “He prepares incredibly well and has such a competitive edge.
“It is great to have someone who everyone has confidence in, he makes a call and everyone backs him,” the Ireland boss added.
“He has never navigated us round the pitch as well as he did today for a while,” added the New Zealander, who kept Sexton going for all but the final 11 minutes at Lansdowne Road.
Schmidt explained how he had been able to give British and Irish Lions playmaker Sexton, who has not completed 80 minutes since last October, a little more time than he intended.
“The stop-start nature of the game when there were several scrums at a time allowed him a bit of a breather,” he explained.
“He was really, really positive in a measured way. He varied the game especially in the second half because we felt we couldn’t use ourselves up too much and instead tire them out.
“It allowed us to keep the pressure on, plus he never shirks his defensive duties.
“We aimed to keep him on till the 55th minute at the latest but as he had a two-and-a-half minute break after a tough hit we kept him on,” added the 51-year-old New Zealander.
Schmidt, bidding to deliver Ireland’s third Six Nations title in four years, said he was not thinking ahead to the final match with England but admitted it was in Ireland’s hands whether that was a title-deciding game.
“Our destiny is in our hands,” said Schmidt.
“I think the Championship is super, it is massively intense and we were on the edge of our seats today.”
Schmidt said there would be no question of taking the Wales for granted, especially as he felt they had been slightly unlucky against Scotland.
“They lost on the scoreboard but had two tries scratched out,” said Schmidt. “For me they seemed to have a lot of control of the game and we can testify how effective the Scots are at finishing.
“You don’t go to Cardiff and get anything easy because the Welsh take a heck of a lot of pride in their game and have some super players.”
Meanwhile, France coach Guy Noves is confident that the future remains bright, despite seeing hopes of the Six Nations title fade.
Recent tests have seen France lose to international rugby union’s top three top-ranked teams – world champions New Zealand, Australia and Six Nations kings England – by a combined margin of just 10 points.
“It is difficult to speak of progress when one has lost,” said Noves.
“I don’t have the impression we are progressing but we are building something that is for sure. This match will gives us clues as to how to build further in the future.
“We will analyse all the situations where we had the ball and weren’t able to make it count.”
He added: “It is a pity the first occasion we did break through their defence ended up with the try being disallowed because of a miniscule knock-on by Gael Fickou.
“I think we have stagnated but we have not taken a step back, but we are finding out by playing the high quality sides like Ireland how far we have to go.”
Noves, who guided Toulouse to four European Cup trophies, refused to blame his pairing of scrum-half Baptiste Serin and fly-half Camille Lopez for Saturday’s defeat after they were outplayed by the more experienced man-of-the-match Conor Murray and Sexton.
“It is not because of the halfbacks, it is a team affair,” said Noves, who nevertheless thought his side should have varied their attacking play with more positional kicking.
“All the players need to make progress. The lessons learnt from today are important for giving us the direction we take for the future.
“We will continue to work and above all we won’t give up. You draw lessons both when you win and you lose.”