Johnny Sexton must fight past Paddy Jackson and earn the right to start Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations clash with France, according to coach Richie Murphy.
Sexton, Rob Kearney and Conor Murray have all been passed fit to face Les Bleus in Dublin on Saturday, with Andrew Trimble also finally overcoming a groin complaint.
British and Irish Lions fly-half Sexton missed Ireland’s opening two Six Nations encounters after suffering a calf problem in Leinster’s 24-24 Champions Cup draw in Castres on January 20.
Ireland skills coach Murphy hailed Ulster playmaker Jackson’s performances in Sexton’s absence, and then insisted boss Joe Schmidt will face a tough selection decision this week.
“Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney trained fully today, so both should be ready to go this week,” said Ireland skills coach Murphy.
“Johnny gets picked like everyone else; he has no divine right to get picked.
“Will he get picked? That is a decision that has to be made.
“I am not trying to create any confusion.
“All I am saying is that there will be a decision made on the back of how he has performed over the last two days.
“Paddy Jackson has been brilliant. We have been very lucky that while Johnny has been out Paddy has been stepping in and filling that gap really well, since probably last summer.
“He has really stepped up to the mark and he’s improving all the time.
“He is still only 25 and Johnny was only getting capped for the first time at the age that Paddy is at now, so he has worked really hard with Johnny off the pitch in order to help him drive things.
“It is starting to come to a stage where there are other options there.”
Ireland have been handed a clear boost through scrum-half Murray’s recovery from a mild hip issue and full-back Kearney shaking off a biceps problem.
Trimble’s availability leaves head coach Schmidt’s side missing just flanker Josh Van der Flier, who will now miss the rest of the tournament with a serious shoulder injury.
Ireland’s established pecking order would dictate that a fully-fit Sexton would slot straight back in to start at fly-half.
While that should remain the most likely course of selection this week, Ireland skills coach Murphy insisted Ulster star Jackson is now heaping the pressure on front-runner Sexton.
“Paddy’s shown a massive improvement over the last couple of seasons,” said Murphy, discussing Jackson’s goal-kicking consistency.
“He’s 25 from 26 since November for Ireland. That’s a pretty good return.
“He is in a good place. That part of his game has really improved and from getting that regular kicking up in Ulster.
“Johnny is a big member of the squad, a big presence in the room.
“His leadership is important to the team and the group itself so having him back in training is really good.
“He has done this before: he has been out for long periods and come back in and been really good.
“So it’s not something that is new to him.
“We feel that he will be ready to go. It’s just a selection issue now. There is no doubt over his availability to play.”
Sexton missed Ireland’s summer tour to South Africa after shoulder surgery and has since battled hamstring and calf problems.
Murphy insisted the 63-cap playmaker will not have had his confidence dented by his string of setbacks, however.
“I think he is the same person that he was,” said Murphy.
“He picked up a couple of injuries and he may be frustrated but I don’t know that. I haven’t seen that. He is in good form and, given the opportunity this week, he will be ready to go.
“Johnny has just been around a bit longer (than Jackson) and has seen it all.
“How he interacts with the group can be slightly different because he is a more senior member than Paddy but that gap is closing and the players that play with Paddy are very confident in his ability. They listen to him and he runs the team really well for us.”