SIX NATIONS: Ireland’s Johnny Sexton expects tough afternoon against France

Ireland captain Rory Best

Ireland captain Rory Best

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Johnny Sexton cannot wait to stand up to another RBS 6 Nations skirmish with France, according to Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell.

Ireland’s linchpin fly-half will return from a month battling calf trouble for Saturday’s clash with Les Bleus in Dublin, once again the main target of France’s physical approach.

Sexton was knocked unconscious in Ireland’s 22-20 win in Paris in 2014, suffered a nasty black eye when the Irish prevailed 18-11 in Dublin a year later - and was then subjected to open pledges of special treatment at World Cup 2015.

Farrell has however still backed the 31-year-old to thrive under the thinly-veiled threat of further physical bullying from the French, who have made a habit of homing in on Ireland’s premier playmaker.

“Johnny’s got plenty of energy in defence hasn’t he?” said Farrell.

“The 10 has got such a responsibility to run the attack, but the way he shows such big commitment in defence as well, it speaks volumes for him as a person.

“Johnny brings that line speed and energy week to week, and he’s certainly excited about getting back amongst it this weekend.”

France prop Eddy Ben Arous promised to “go after” Sexton “200 per cent” before Ireland then dispatched Les Bleus 24-9 at the 2015 World Cup.

Sexton hobbled out of that match after less than half an hour with a groin problem, after copping another instalment of the now ongoing roughhouse treatment from the French.

Yoann Maestri then caught Sexton with a late tackle as Ireland slumped to a 10-9 Six Nations defeat in Paris in 2016, escaping censure after referee Jaco Peyper refused to review the incident.

France will clearly repeat one of their favourite ploys of bidding to unsettle Sexton when facing Ireland in Dublin, but Farrell insists the fit-again fly-half is ready for yet another rumble.

“We talk about detail and how smart we can be in defence, but ultimately if we can’t back that up with a bit of attitude it all comes to nothing,” said Farrell.

“And that’s certainly what Johnny has. You want defence to be enjoyable, and it definitely is when that attitude is there. That’s what you’re after.”

Defence coach Farrell has however admitted Ireland must raise their rearguard action considerably to fend off the varied threats of a France outfit if not fully restored to the glories of old, at least once more prepared to attack from everywhere.

“Our defence in the first half against Scotland wasn’t good enough,” said Farrell, recalling Ireland’s 27-22 defeat in Edinburgh on February 4.

“The second half I thought we got a lot of ball back from our defence.

“You play what’s in front of you and in the Italian game we forced a lot of errors and got a lot of turnover ball from that.

“We’re happy with the progress in the second-half in Scotland and the Italy game.

“But tomorrow’s a different kettle of fish, we’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game.”

“The French are definitely improving. I thought they had a good threat through the autumn, they played confidently but also had a bit of their old flair back as well.

“Width in attack, their offloading game; it all comes through dominance in the carry.

“They are certainly backing themselves at this moment in time, which creates that bit of space in the line or out wide. We’re aware of that, so we’ve got to make sure that we stop it.

Captain Rory Best has admitted that Ireland must channel a fear-factor of France’s fluent attack in order to pull off a much-coveted victory.

“I think the French are definitely a team that you’ve got to fear in terms of their rugby ability,” said Best.

“So it’s massively important to hold onto the ball.

“This French team is coming here as a very, very dangerous side, especially off turnover ball and broken-field play.

“We need to make sure we put them under pressure when we have the ball, make sure we keep it and force them to make a lot of tackles.

“We know they are very dangerous with the ball, but from turnovers they can be lethal.”