Six Nations: Sexton fit to captain Ireland as Wales suffer Halfpenny blow

By Sports Desk February 02, 2023

Andy Farrell has been able to call on Johnny Sexton to captain Ireland in their Six Nations opener against Wales on Saturday.

Sexton, who is set to participate in his final Six Nations ahead of retirement later this year, was a doubt for the tournament after undergoing surgery on a cheek injury last month.

But the 37-year-old has recovered and was named skipper for the clash at the Principality Stadium, where the roof will be closed at Ireland's request.

Jamison Gibson-Park will partner Sexton in the backs.

Prop Tadhg Furlong is not fit to play due to a calf injury, with Finlay Bealham starting in his place, while Robbie Henshaw is also absent.

Stuart McCloskey has been picked ahead of Bundee Aki in Henshaw's position and is set for his first Six Nations appearance since 2016.

There was bad news for Wales on the injury front on Wednesday, with Leigh Halfpenny – who had been given the nod at full-back by Warren Gatland – withdrawing after suffering a back spasm.

Liam Williams will start in Halfpenny's stead, despite concerns over his own fitness after a string of injuries.

Ireland team: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O'Toole, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Bundee Aki.

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  • £3million set to be shared among Lions nations for women’s rugby £3million set to be shared among Lions nations for women’s rugby

    A new £3million funding initiative will aim to help develop more players and coaches from across the British Isles ahead of the first British and Irish Lions Women’s tour in 2027.

    The Lions will play three Tests against world champions New Zealand during September 2027 and are also expected to have warm-up fixtures against provincial sides.

    Among the challenges facing the historic tour is England’s clear superiority over the other unions, which has seen the Red Roses dominate the Six Nations – with Saturday’s 46-0 victory over Scotland in Edinburgh stretching their overall winning run in the tournament to 27 matches.

    Backed by the Lions Women’s team founding partner Royal London, the £3m ‘Levelling the Playing Field’ pathways funding grant will be utilised in tailored plans for each union to best match their needs.

    The Irish Rugby Football Union has decided to use the funding to host additional women’s under-18 and under-20 camps and training matches to accelerate player development as well as developing a ‘Coach Accelerator Scholarship Program’ and working with universities to identify future talent.

    The Welsh Rugby Union will strengthen its women’s pathway coaching staff with five new members, including a performance pathway coach and specialist skills coach. The WRU will also invest in talent identification programmes, and initiatives to engage Welsh qualified talent based outside of the nation.

    Scottish Rugby is set to recruit two ‘Performance Pipeline’ coaches and will deliver additional youth camps and training matches to accelerate development within the teams as well as hosting residential camps for a national academy.

    The Rugby Football Union will use the grant to further develop England’s current player development groups, which will help increase the targeted skill development of players coming through the pathway.

    It is hoped collaborative working and shared research and ideas will help develop playing standards and give the Lions Women’s squad the best chance of a successful tour to in New Zealand in three years’ time.

    Lions chief executive Ben Calveley said: “Supporting the growth of the women’s game is a key strategic priority for the British and Irish Lions as it is for each of our constituent unions.

    “Royal London’s ‘Levelling the Playing Field’ grant represents a significant investment into the women’s game in the four unions and will make a positive impact on women’s rugby.”

  • Walsh remembers the magic of O’Brien, as Mullins goes for British crown Walsh remembers the magic of O’Brien, as Mullins goes for British crown

    Ted Walsh believes even if Willie Mullins does not manage to emulate Vincent O’Brien by being crowned champion trainer in the UK when based in Ireland, both have played their part in changing the face of National Hunt racing.

    Given the feats will be over 70 years apart – O’Brien was champion trainer for successive seasons in the early 1950s – Walsh feels it is difficult to compare their achievements.

    However, he is left in no doubt that just like O’Brien, Mullins is destined to be remembered as a man who changed his sport.

    “It’s very hard to compare anything like that because the prize-money was totally different,” said Walsh.

    “Willie has never been that bothered about it, he admits it, but now he’s in front he may as well have a good go. He was very close one year when Vautour fell at Aintree (2016), if he had won Willie would have been champion.

    “Whether Willie is champion trainer in England or not – it would be a great achievement, but he’s the real deal whether he does it or not.”

    O’Brien was a pioneer who after dominating the National Hunt scene in the 1950s and 1960s, later switched his attentions to the Flat, winning the Triple Crown with Nijinsky in 1970. He remains the last man to win the Triple Crown.

    “Vincent won three English Nationals with three different horses three years in a row (Early Mist 1953, Royal Tan 1954 and Quare Times 1955), three Champion Hurdles with Hatton’s Grace (1949–1951), the Gloucester Hurdle at Cheltenham used to divide and in 15 years he won 11 of them!” said an incredulous Walsh.

    “Of course after doing all that he went and did the same on the Flat!

    “He told me once that he always travelled first class on the train because there was a chance of meeting someone with money! He met John McShane on a train going to Doncaster for the sales and he bought him Ballymoss and Gladness. Ballymoss he won an Irish Derby, the Leger and the Arc and Gladness won the Ebor and the Ascot Gold Cup the following year.

    “Vincent set the standard. I knew him, but whenever I saw him I would say ‘Hello Mr O’Brien’ – it was never Vincent. My father knew him well, he was from a similar area to us.”

    The victory of I Am Maximus in Saturday’s Grand National means Mullins holds an advantage over Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls, setting up a fantastic finale with Closutton set to be well represented at Ayr and Sandown over the next two weekends.

    “Like Willie is now, Vincent was a hero, everybody looked up to him. I remember growing up as kid listening to my dad and my uncle Ted talking about Vincent,” said Walsh, who won the National with Papillon in 2000.

    “I’d say it was pretty similar in those days of people getting sick of Vincent winning, he didn’t quite dominate Cheltenham like Willie does – but I’m sure people were sick of it!

    “It was a huge achievement Vincent winning the UK title, I don’t know if he was the first man to try, but he was the first to do it. But Vincent did so many things first.

    “He was the first to fly horses from Ireland, the first person to put in an all-weather gallop in Ireland and now everybody has them. He was a pioneer, he brought the sport forward years.

    “Like Willie really, Willie has changed it as well but the scale of what he is doing makes it different. Transporting the horses now is different, they have lovely lorries with air conditioning, the roads are so much better so that makes it easier. Everything has moved on.

    “I wouldn’t say one fellow was better than the other, but Vincent set the ball rolling and it hasn’t been done by anybody since Vincent.

    “When I was growing up Vincent was inaccessible, he was almost treated like royalty, but Willie is the most approachable fellow, he’s very good for the sport and he’s a great ambassador for racing.”

  • England wing Jess Breach wary of rapidly improving Scotland in Six Nations clash England wing Jess Breach wary of rapidly improving Scotland in Six Nations clash

    Jess Breach insists England enter unknown territory when they meet a rapidly improving Scotland in the Guinness Women’s Six Nations on Saturday.

    The Red Roses have not lost in the fixture since suffering an 8-5 defeat in 1998 but that record faces its sternest test yet at a sold-out Hive Stadium in Edinburgh, where a record crowd of 7,774 will be attendance.

    Scotland toppled Wales in Cardiff in round one before being edged by France a week later and, having won the WXV 2 tournament in October, there is evidence the 28 professional contracts awarded at the end of 2022 are raising standards.

    England remain favourites but wing Breach insists the element of jeopardy is good for the Red Rose and the Six Nations.

    “It is going to be a really competitive game. And we’ve probably never been in this scenario with Scotland before,” said Breach, who has won on all 35 of her caps.

    “Everyone’s really excited because it’s going to be challenging for us. Hopefully we can showcase really good rugby for the fans.

    “It’s great for the competition. You can see that every nation is getting better after being contracted.

    “Italy put up a great fight against us in the first half, so it just shows that if money is pumped into the game and players are allowed to go full time, the Six Nations gets better.”

    Demonstrating the growth of women’s rugby is that Scotland’s victory 26 years ago was staged at an independent school in Edinburgh, compared to a packed Hive Stadium in 2024.

    “It feels like we’re growing and heading in the right direction. Every nation wants big crowds,” Breach said.

    “That’s happening at the moment and heading into the 2025 World Cup we should be able to sell most stadiums out. It’s exciting and who doesn’t want to be part of women’s rugby?”

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