Ireland vs France Six Nations: Bruised Jonathan Sexton defies critics in winning return

His return from a 12-week lay-off due to concussion was always going to be a closely watched test of character for the Ireland fly-half

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The Independent Online

Whisper it quietly amid the furore but Jonathan Sexton believes he has been knocked back into shape to face England in their potential Six Nations title decider.

His return from a 12-week lay-off due to concussion was always going to be a closely watched test of character for the Ireland fly-half, particularly given the current climate of concern for head injuries. Furthermore, he was up against Mathieu Bastareaud, whose impact 11 months ago began the chain of events that led to Sexton’s enforced break from the game.

But sporting the wounds of a heavyweight boxer following a series of collisions that made for uncomfortable viewing, Sexton admitted he was grateful for the brutal return to rugby in Ireland’s 18-11 win over France on Saturday. It laid to rest any personal doubt, he said, that he was ready for the thrust of Test rugby, as well as criticism over his selection.

“I understand the concern but I’ve been out of the game for 12 weeks. I was 100 per cent fit and I proved that with the bang on the head I took and I felt fine,” Sexton said. “I was actually pleased to get the bang because it proved to myself that there are no issues going forward. If that had happened nine weeks ago it may have been different, but it’s great to put it to bed and move forward.

“Someone said I shouldn’t play against France because of Bastareaud but that’s absolute stupidity. If you followed that then I’d never play again because next week I face Fritz Lee and the week after that will be Luther Burrell and Billy Vunipola.”

Sexton knew what was coming. France had said as much and it took just seven minutes of his comeback to face the force of nature that is Bastareaud. Ireland held its breath whenever the French bulldozer made a beeline for the fly-half and let out a sigh of relief when he dusted himself down each time.

The running battle took its toll, with both requiring head-injury assessments, as well as seven stitches above the eye in Sexton’s case, following a nasty clash. But Sexton remained unbowed and will be better for the bumps.

He said: “France said what they were going to do, it’s what we would have done as well. I knew they couldn’t do anything illegal these days with the TMO watching everything and everything that happened was fair. But we were ready for them, with extra guys on my shoulder to bring the big guy down. My only concern after the bang was if the eye closed up, but it was fine.”

There were signs of rustiness in Sexton’s passing, not least when his first ended in the front-row seating of the Aviva Stadium and another flew into Jared Payne’s face, with the try-line calling.

Yet his kicking was exemplary, out of hand and at goal, scoring 15 of his team’s 18 points that proved enough to withstand a late French revival through Romain Taofifénua’s try. Once the bruising subsides, Sexton will have England in his sights.

He said: “England have won four from five in the championship for the past three years but have not had as much to show for it as they would have liked. We won the title last year even though they beat us. We’ve lost the last four [meetings] and England looked good against Wales and will only improve. But we have players back from injury and will get better with more time together.”

France face a fortnight of introspection before taking on Wales and changes are in the air. Head coach Philippe Saint-André said: “Our discipline let us down but we are not as bad as people think.”