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Six Nations Ireland's Sexton returns for France clash

Jackson, who because of Sexton's unavailability has started five of Ireland's last seven Tests, drops to the bench.

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Leinster and Ireland's Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty during his club side's European Champions Cup game against Castres at the Pierre Antoine Stadium in Castres, southern France on January 20, 2017 play

Leinster and Ireland's Johnny Sexton kicks a penalty during his club side's European Champions Cup game against Castres at the Pierre Antoine Stadium in Castres, southern France on January 20, 2017

(AFP/File)

Standout fly-half Johnny Sexton will start his first match for Ireland since limping off against New Zealand last November in the Six Nations clash at home to France on Saturday.

The 31-year-old -- whose last game was five weeks ago when he suffered a calf strain playing for Irish province Leinster against French club Castres -- came in for Paddy Jackson in the team announced by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt at the squad's training base on Thursday.

Jackson, who because of Sexton's unavailability has started five of Ireland's last seven Tests, drops to the bench.

Sexton's return to the starting XV is one of three changes to the side that thrashed Italy 63-10 a fortnight ago.

Hooker Rory Best returns as captain -- after seeing his run of 51 successive Six Nations appearances ended by a stomach bug for the Italy game -- whilst Schmidt has opted for prop Jack McGrath instead of veteran front-row Cian Healy.

The latter drops to the bench which also sees fit-again Iain Henderson -- replacing Ultan Dillane -- flanker Peter O'Mahony, who is recalled with Josh van der Flier injured, and wing Andrew Trimble coming in.

Trimble replaces his Ulster team-mate Craig Gilroy, who can count himself unfortunate after scoring a hat-trick of tries in the Italy match.

Sexton -- whose last full 80 minute display came on October 1 -- has shown before that lack of activity doesn't affect his performance in big matches.

In 2015 he returned from a three-month absence and slotted over five penalties in Ireland's 18-11 win against France in the Six Nations.

However, in the years since he has seemed increasingly fragile and in the corresponding match last year in Paris -- the French edging the encounter 10-9 -- was subject to some heavy hits early on which left Ireland angry at the lack of action by the referee.

Outside Sexton this weekend will be the youthful but burgeoning centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose which is already being compared to the successful Irish midfield alliance of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.

Ireland and France go into Saturday's match at Dublin's Lansdowne Road having both won one and lost one in their two matches so far in the tournament, although the Irish are a point better off than the French thanks to accruing two bonus points to their opponents' one.

The French, though, beat Ireland's conquerors Scotland last time out with a 22-16 victory in Paris.

Ireland team to play France in a Six Nations international at Lansdowne Road on Saturday (1650 GMT kick-off):

Ireland (15-1)

Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, CJ Stander; Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan; Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (capt), Jack McGrath

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, Kieran Marmion, Paddy Jackson, Andrew Trimble

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