Ireland captain Johnny Sexton and prop Tadhg Furlong have both been declared fit for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations by Leinster.
Sexton, 37, suffered a facial injury in the 41-12 win over Connacht on New Year’s Day and there were fears the fly-half would be ruled out of the first two rounds of Guinness Six Nations action.
Furlong recovered from his ankle injury but is once again on the sidelines after a minor calf injury, but he is expected to be back for the Championship.
Ireland open their campaign against Wales in Cardiff on February 4, before returning to Dublin to host France in what is expected to be one of the games of the Guinness Six Nations.
Below we look at what two of the Guinness Six Nations’ biggest stars bring to Ireland and what their return to fitness means ahead of their campaign.
- Goal-kicking excellence
One of the top-performing fly-halves over the past decade, Sexton’s goal-kicking has always been one of the best parts of his game and is something Ireland benefit from massively when he is on the field.
Across the three Championships since Andy Farrell took over the reins, Sexton has been in formidable kicking form, landing 56 of his 66 kicks at 85%, scoring 151 points.
He finished second top point scorer in 2020 with 51, was comfortably top scorer in 2021 with 65 points despite missing a match through injury and a further 35 last season which saw him finish third top point scorer despite missing the match against France and coming on as a replacement against Italy.
Sexton’s goal kicking is one of many aspects that is world class and in a Championship that is notorious for tight and highly competitive occasions, a top-quality kicker is simply invaluable.
- Furlong vital to Ireland success
Tadhg Furlong is right up there as one of the best props in world rugby and his fitness is paramount to Ireland’s success.
He is an outstanding scrummager and does the fundamentals of the game superbly, but Furlong is so much more than that with both his ball-carrying and handling skills that most backs could only dream of.
Now highly experienced, having represented his nation 62 times, played every Test across two Lions tours and been prominent for Leinster over the past decade, he is also an important figure in the dressing room.
His battle with Cyril Baille in Round 2 is one that seriously gets the juices flowing.
Ireland are the world’s best side with Furlong in the scrum, and they will fancy their chances of Guinness Six Nations glory.
- Sexton unlocks the Ireland backline and gets the best out of Henshaw and Ringrose
Ireland’s centres were in excellent form in 2022, with Henshaw in particular at the top of his game in the historic series win in New Zealand.
But that centre pairing of Henshaw and Ringrose functions so well as a direct result of Sexton, who takes the ball flat to the line and always opens up so many options.
His decision making of when to kick and when to pass is up there with the very best having seen it all before, with Sexton guiding his team around the park expertly and playing in the right areas of the field.
He is also known for a clutch moment, with match-winning drop goals a part of his game, but his relationship with both his centres Henshaw and Ringrose is what gets Ireland ticking and Farrell will be delighted to have his starting midfield available.
- Always important to have experienced players in Cardiff cauldron
The Principality Stadium is well-known to be one of the most hostile environments to play at in world rugby and experience of Cardiff is always vital to succeed.
Both Furlong and Sexton have had their fair share of battles with Wales both in Cardiff and Dublin and with Warren Gatland back at the helm for Wales, that is even more invaluable.
Furlong will likely be going up against Nicky Smith, who had an exceptional game against Leinster at the weekend, while Sexton and Dan Biggar will renew their rivalry.
Those are both battles that less experienced players would struggle with anywhere, let alone in Cardiff, where 80,000 passionate Welsh supporters will be roaring on their team.
To put into context the Ireland captain’s importance during the Championship, they have a 76% win record since Farrell took over, winning 10 of the 13 matches – without Sexton they are zero from two.
- It allows them to adequately prepare for France
Ireland’s visit to Cardiff will be challenging enough, but the following week against reigning champions France will be one hell of a match-up.
The top two teams in the world locking horns during the Guinness Six Nations is going to be a match for the ages – and one both sides will be even more eager to win.
Having Furlong available for set-pieces and Sexton to run the backline with plenty of time ahead of that clash is hugely important, it will allow Ireland to prepare the best way possible and be fully set for what will be a mammoth encounter.
Ireland’s only loss came in a 30-24 defeat to France in Paris without Sexton last season, with him and Furlong, they will be hoping to go for Grand Slam glory.