Johnny Sexton will be match fit despite a lack of playing time. Photo: David Moir/EPA

DUBLIN – Talismanic fly-half Johnny Sexton will be match fit despite a lack of playing time when he and defending Six Nations champions Ireland host England in their opening clash on Saturday, said forwards coach Simon Easterby.

The 33-year-old world player of the year is expected to play after being troubled by a knee problem which forced him to miss Leinster's Champions Cup pool matches this month with Wasps and Toulouse.

Easterby, who head coach Joe Schmidt has called Ireland's unsung hero, says that although it would usually be a risk to select a player without game time, Sexton is a case apart. 

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“Certain players need game on game to get a certain level but Johnny Sexton is not one of those,” said Easterby at a press conference on Tuesday. “He has the ability to play fresh, run a team, know his detail, be across everything but also feel like he has the conditioning and fitness under his belt.

“Match fitness is second to none but we trust the conditioners and medics here and at Leinster. We know we have the balance right to get him up to speed.”

The England-born Easterby, who won 65 Ireland caps between 2000-2008, brushed off the verbal 'grenades' being lobbed in Ireland's direction by the England camp.

The latest came from defence coach John Mitchell who told the BBC he expected the Irish to “bore the shit out of us”.   
  
“It's a headline, it's not the meat of the article or the conversation,” said Easterby of New Zealander Mitchell's remarks.

“There was a lot of stuff in there that John was saying that was positive and it's just the fact it came across in such a way that maybe he wanted it to affect us.

“It doesn't. If you believed or took too much time on the things that get said outside in the media or from other coaches then you would spend all your times trying to put fires out.

“So we don't focus too much on it.”

'Resilience, depth and mentality'

Easterby says the days when the Irish were underdogs against England and approached their clashes with trepidation are a thing of the past.

“Across the board, since the last World Cup, we've built resilience, depth and mentality, knowing if we're on our own game we will be difficult to beat,” said Easterby.

“It's the quality of our attack work with Joe and defence work with Andy (Farrell) which makes it hard for teams to beat us.”

Ireland's Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty goal during the Third Test rugby match against Australia in June 2018. Photo: EPA/David Moir
Ireland's Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty goal during the Third Test rugby match against Australia in June 2018. Photo: EPA/David Moir

Easterby, who won two Test caps for the British & Irish Lions on the 2005 tour of New Zealand, says Ireland are trying to ignore the expectations placed on them as being the tournament favourites.

“It's the position we put ourselves in but we can't control the outside expectation from media and fans,” he said.

“We want to continue that but we can't control that.

“We are a driven group, we're working hard, we have focus and a consistent squad who have seen both sides of it.

“We're comfortable in not worrying about other expectations, just the expectations we have of ourselves.”

Agence France-Presse (AFP)