Johnny Sexton can withstand France’s merciless all-out assault and will not be bullied into mistakes in Sunday’s vital World Cup battle, according to Joe Schmidt.
France have vowed to strong-arm Sexton all week in the build-up to Sunday’s Pool D decider at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Ireland boss Schmidt backed Sexton to shrug off the niggly French rhetoric, after confirming Jared Payne was omitted due to a mixture of lingering foot trouble and Keith Earls’ fine form.
Munster flyer Earls will start at outside centre and square up directly to France’s juggernaut centre Mathieu Bastareaud, but Schmidt believes his midfield men can cope with the pressure.
“The last time we played France the first ball they got they came straight down Johnny’s channel and made the same sort of noises what they were going to do then,” said Ireland head coach Schmidt.
“I haven’t really seen too much of what has been said this week, but we’ve got to concentrate on our own battle.
“We are pretty well aware of who was going to be in their team.
“I do know one thing though: Jonathan Sexton will not be found wanting for courage.
“He won’t step out of the way, he will put himself in harm’s way.
“He is a big, strong lad and I think that gives us confidence that if they do go down that channel, Johnny will be ready for them.
“And the guys coming off the back of the scrum and lineout will connect with him.
“Robbie Henshaw topped our tackle count last week with 16 out of 16 tackles.
“Within the group they are looking forward to the challenge and they know it will be one heck of a challenge.”
Munster’s in-form flyer Earls slots in at outside centre with Payne unable to start despite Ireland having expected him to beat his heavily-bruised foot at the start of the week.
Schmidt insisted it was not worth risking Payne to face France, with Ireland already assured of a quarter-final next weekend.
Win and top the pool and Ireland will face Argentina rather than the All Blacks in the last eight.
Lock Devin Toner has been restored to the starting line-up with Ulster powerhouse Iain Henderson dropping to the bench, primed to counter France’s heavy-hitting replacements in the closing stages.
“It’s a mix of the two,” said Schmidt, when asked if Payne was left out owing to fitness or form.
“We felt that Keith played pretty well last week amongst a pretty flat effort.
“And he played exceptionally last time he was at the Millennium Stadium in the centre.
“Jared got through training completely on Wednesday but we do think if we put him back in on Sunday it would aggravate the foot.
“We just felt it was pertinent to leave Jared for another week.
“Whichever game it is next week we want to try to ensure we have a fully-fit squad to pick from.”
Ireland have beaten France twice in succession en route to back-to-back Six Nations triumphs, Sexton taking a battering from Toulon centre Bastareaud on both occasions.
Former Racing Metro playmaker Sexton was returning after a three-month concussion lay-off when Ireland edged out France 18-11 in Dublin in this year’s Six Nations, fearlessly standing up in a string of big hits against Bastareaud.
Earls is not famed for his dominant tackling, but Schmidt still backed the 28-year-old to cope amid the ferocious defensive challenge.
“More often than not he’ll be marking up Wesley Fofana and he’s a speed, agility and power man,” said Schmidt.
“We don’t have someone who is the same size as Mathieu Bastareaud anyway.
“I’ve got massive respect for what he brings to their team.
“We’ve long struggled to contain him.
“One thing I know both the centres have is pretty much limitless courage.
“They will put themselves in the way of Bastareaud or anyone coming down that channel.”
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster), T Bowe (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), R Henshaw (Connacht), D Kearney, J Sexton (both Leinster), C Murray (Munster), C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross, D Toner (both Leinster), P O’Connell (Toulon, capt), P O’Mahony (Munster), S O’Brien, J Heaslip (both Leinster).
Replacements: R Strauss, J McGrath (both Leinster), N White (Connacht), I Henderson, C Henry (both Ulster), E Reddan, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald (all Leinster).
France: S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, B Dulin; F Michalak, S Tillous-Borde; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani, P Pape, Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (capt), D Chouly, L Picamoles.
Replacements: B Kayser, V Debaty, N Mas, A Flanquart, B Le Roux, M Parra, R Tales, A Dumoulin.