Joe Schmidt insists Johnny Sexton can still “dominate” the RBS 6 Nations in spite of revealing the injury-plagued fly-half could miss a third of Ireland’s campaign.
Paddy Jackson will run Ireland’s backline in Saturday’s tournament opener against Scotland at Murrayfield, with British and Irish Lions playmaker Sexton still battling calf trouble.
Head coach Schmidt has now admitted Sexton remains a long-shot to recover in time for Ireland’s trip to Italy on Saturday, February 11.
Sexton missed Ireland’s summer series in South Africa after shoulder surgery, and has since suffered hamstring and calf issues - but Ireland boss Schmidt remains unfazed by that sequence of setbacks.
“Johnny Sexton is an outside chance for Italy,” said Schmidt.
“There’s no one more frustrated than Johnny himself. He was incredibly motivated for this championship.
“For us he’s probably played 82 minutes in the last eight Test matches, so for us it’s a real frustration.
“But in the Six Nations campaigns that I’ve been involved in, Johnny has dominated our number 10 position, so we’re still hopeful he can come back in and do that for us.
“But at the same time Paddy Jackson has done really well.
“Paddy played all three Tests against South Africa, he played against Australia and came off the bench for Johnny against the All Blacks, so it’s not like he hasn’t had good experience.”
Sexton suffered his calf injury in Leinster’s 24-24 Champions Cup draw at Castres on January 20, but Ireland were confident - outwardly at least - that their pivotal playmaker would recover to face Scotland.
That all changed on Monday afternoon though when the 31-year-old pulled up in training, with Ulster’s Jackson stepping into the hot-seat and Munster’s Ian Keatley drafted in from the cold as cover.
Lions coach Warren Gatland was quietly observing Ireland training on Monday when Sexton suffered his latest setback, but Schmidt remains relaxed over the 63-cap half-back’s general injury profile.
Asked if Sexton’s injuries raise fears over his long-term durability, Schmidt continued: “Not really. I don’t think there’s many players that don’t go through a period of injury and a little bit of bad luck.
“It was a very minor injury going into the Castres match and it just triggered an extension of that injury.
“It’s just for us getting him 100 per cent fit before we get him back out there.
“I think it’s a bit like (when) Rob Kearney last year had a series of continual injuries, but he’s been really robust for us this year.
“Things tend to ebb and flow a bit, but hopefully they will flow a bit better in the back end of the championship.”
However, his earlier remarks indicate that Jackson will probably not be allowed to ‘own’ the number 10 jersey this Championship.
Keith Earls will start on the wing for Ireland’s Scotland trip, with Andrew Trimble ruled out through groin trouble.
Munster hooker Niall Scannell could make his Test debut off the bench, with John Ryan preferred to Finlay Bealham as the back-up tighthead.
Donnacha Ryan misses out with a minor knee problem, leaving Iain Henderson partnering Devin Toner at lock with Ultan Dillane on the bench.