Johnny Sexton says he's on course to be fit for for the start of the Guinness Six Nations, and that he's already returned to elements of training following his cheekbone injury.

The Ireland captain had been a doubt in recent weeks after suffering a nasty cheekbone injury in Leinster's New Year's Day win against Connacht in the BKT United Rugby Championship, which required a surgical procedure.

However, the out-half returned to training last week with the aid of a protective mask, and says he's on course to train fully next week, ahead of Ireland's opener against Wales in Cardiff on 4 February.

He also admits he was relieved to find out his injury wasn't as bad as first feared.

"Of course, after the initial bang I was worried for what was ahead," he said at the launch of the 2023 Six Nations Championship.

"Thankfully it's probably the one bone in your face that you're happy to get knocked in. I’ll be back training fully next week. So all good to go.

"At the time the European games were at the forefront of my mind. When you figure out you're not going to be able to play in them, the Six Nations then [comes to mind]."

For the third year in a row Ireland and Wales meet on the opening weekend, and while they were comfortable 29-7 winners when the sides met last season, they've struggled in recent visits to Cardiff, losing each of their last four Six Nations games in the Welsh capital.

The tournament has also been shaken up with a pair of coaching changes, Steve Borthwick replacing Eddie Jones at England, but also Warren Gatland returning to Wales after Wayne Pivac was dismissed in December.

And Sexton says while he's played both for and against Gatland's teams a lot down the years, it still brings an element of uncertainty to the competition.

"I think it'll give them a big lift having him back. Even the atmosphere around the first game will be up based on the fact that he’s back. The players will take great confidence from it.

"How they’re going to play, it’s quite uncertain for us, isn’t it? They’ve got a new attack coach and a new defence coach so how they play, we’re going to be guessing a little bit. So we’re going to have to be adaptable and we’re probably going to have to focus on ourselves a lot, which is maybe a good thing.

"We know the players that they’ve got, the individuals that they have, we need to be on top of that of course. But in how they play, we need to be ready for a few different things."

Sexton scored nine points in last year's 29-7 win against Wales

Ireland are narrow favourites to win the tournament over France, with Andy Farrell's side coming into it on top of the world rankings after their Test series win in New Zealand last summer, as well as their three victories out of three in the Autumn Nations Series.

But Sexton says their position in the world rankings is irrelevant with two major trophies to play for in the next 10 months.

"We played in November with that target on our back, obviously they're your words. People wanted to beat us but we got three good results so we’ve had a bit of experience in dealing with it.

"Our focus will be on trying to beat what we did last year in the Six Nations, trying to win the tournament. That’s what every country is going in trying to do.

"Where we rank in the world, the world rankings is not something you’d ever talk about as players. I’d much rather win the Six Nations and be fifth or sixth in the world than being number one [and not winning]. It doesn’t really matter for us, it’ll matter for maybe some of the younger guys that will get a World Cup draw for four years’ time. But for us it doesn’t matter."

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Follow every game of the Guinness Six Nations on RTÉ.ie/Sport and the RTÉ News app, or listen to live commentary on RTÉ Radio 1.

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