Paddy Jackson must start against France, regardless of whether or not Jonathan Sexton is fit, according to Damien Varley.

The Ulster out-half has been a regular stand-in for Sexton, who has only played in two of Ireland’s last nine games, against New Zealand in Chicago and Dublin, and was replaced due to injury on both occasions.

Questions about the 31-year-old Leinster man’s ability to stay fit abound and Jackson, who kicked nine from nine on his 21st cap against Italy last week, has become an able deputy.

The former Racing 92 player, who has 63 Ireland caps, missed the first two rounds with a calf injury. 

And for the good of Irish rugby, according to former Munster hooker Varley, it is the Ulsterman, 25, who should start when Ireland host France in round three of the Six Nations on Saturday week (4.50pm, live on RTÉ 1 Radio and RTÉ2). 

Having already lost to Scotland, Joe Schmidt’s side cannot afford another defeat if they want to contend for the championship.

“I think I’d start Jackson and bring on Sexton against France,” Varley told the RTÉ Rugby podcast.

“You have to weigh it up; there is a lot to win in the short term but you have to always keep an eye on where we’re going.

“If Sexton keeps picking up these knocks... what is happening if we keep knocking everyone underneath him and sort of nicking at their confidence consistently?

“You have to look at [Jackson’s selection] as a stepping stone.

“Certainly he’s not to blame, there is no one individual to blame for the performance against Scotland. It was a good stepping stone last week [against Italy].

“You need to harness that and build on that.

"I mean the thing about Sexton is, it’s so contentious: is he going to be fit? If you start him, could he get a knock? [Of course] anyone could get a knock in the first ten minutes.

“But we have seen France treat Ireland that way where they just consistently flood his channel and bombard it.

"The guy is extremely brave, he throws his body, sometimes foolishly, into this.

“It’s a physical game; it has consequences when you keep putting your body on the line, which Sexton has done countless times for Ireland.”

Varley added that, despite the importance of the France game, Schmidt must take a long-term view with the World Cup in Japan two years away.

“At some point you have to start bringing in fellas, building their confidence and letting them go in, even if it’s a half each,” said Varley, who won three Ireland caps.

“I think Jackson needs to be rewarded; we have to keep an eye on 2019.”