Rory Best has insisted Ireland will not be dragged into Eddie Jones’ “sideshow” on Johnny Sexton’s welfare ahead of Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations clash with England.
England boss Jones questioned the wisdom of Ireland fielding fly-half Sexton following his latest fitness scare, a “whiplash injury” in the 10-9 defeat to France on February 13.
Jones claimed Sexton’s parents “would be worried” about his long-term health, heightening tensions especially given the Leinster fly-half’s history of being stood down for 12 weeks in 2014 after four concussions inside 12 months.
Ireland have been at pains all week to rise above England head coach Jones’ verbal barbs ahead of Saturday’s Twickenham encounter, and hooker Best followed suit.
“There’s a lot of things going on in the media, we have enough going on with our own stuff,” said Best.
“We’re not worried about that. We’ve got to make sure we’re as close to perfect as we can be.
“Everything else apart from the rugby is a sideshow that we don’t want to get involved in.
“All we know is that Johnny’s a quality player.”
Privately Ireland are understood to have been frustrated by Jones’ comments, especially given Sexton’s head injury history.
Sexton appeared dazed when withdrawn from the closing moments in Paris. A host of columnists have suggested Sexton should seriously consider early retirement in light of his concussion profile, but Ireland’s coaches insist the top specialist medics have handed him a clean bill of health.
England boss Jones bristled when asked whether there could be any justification in targeting players in the modern game, in light of his comments on Sexton.
Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek insisted England will gain short shrift in targeting one of the side’s most committed and gritty defenders in any case.
“Johnny’s probably one of the hardest-working and most physical players around,” said Feek.
“He might not necessarily look it, but he’s very strong.
“Occasionally he’ll get his head up or shoulder down and make a big hit. Whatever’s said elsewhere, you don’t want to be distracted by any of that.
“For us, we don’t target players because there’s not enough time to worry about that anyway.”
Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey and Leinster flanker Josh van der Flier will make their Test debuts in Saturday’s Twickenham clash, with Ireland still seeking their first win of the tournament.
While George Ford and Owen Farrell could have their hands full containing physical centre McCloskey, Best backed 22-year-old Van der Flier to make a name for himself too.
The Leinster academy graduate only made his senior debut in March last year, but is now tipped for a bright future.
Best admitted Van der Flier’s focus and commitment have quickly marked him out as a “quality player”.
“There is a bit of a buzz around the new caps, it’s a great thing and for the more experienced players it’s about us helping them through to a certain extent,” said Best.
“Experiencing Test rugby is one thing, but there is no better feeling in the game than winning in Test rugby.
“To play against Josh is a real handful, he is very combative, carrying the ball but also in the tackle.
“You can tell with these players, when Conor Murray first came into the Ireland squad you could just tell there was something about him, and it’s the same with Josh.
“You just know he’s going to be a quality player. You know if you ask him to do something he’ll do it.
“For somebody that young it’s a great trait to have. I’m really looking forward to playing alongside him tomorrow.”