Ireland coach Joe Schmidt facing anxious Jonathan Sexton wait

Jonathan Sexton and Joe Schmidt

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt faces an anxious weekend wait over Jonathan Sexton's fitness while Keith Earls looks likely to miss the early stages of the Six Nations Championship.

Sexton, 28, has had to leave Ireland's training camp in Kildare to return to France for Racing Metro's game against Toulouse on Saturday.

"He will get back hopefully Saturday evening or Sunday," said Schmidt.

However, a knee injury looks likely to rule Earls out for a number of weeks.

The Munster wing sustained the injury in last weekend's Heineken Cup win over Edinburgh.

"Certainly he (Earls) will be unavailable for the Scotland and Wales games," added the Ireland coach.

"I'd say there might be a bit of medial damage there. If it is, it could be anything from three to six, to eight weeks."

While Tommy Bowe is also unlikely to be involved in Ireland's early Six Nations game after being out of action since late November because of a groin injury, Ireland still have plenty of options for the two wing berths.

Dave Kearney started against the All Blacks in November while the other contenders will be Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy.

However, the more immediate issue for Schmidt is whether Sexton comes through Racing Metro's game at the Stade de France unscathed.

France coach Philippe Saint-Andre can withhold 23 of his squad from club action this weekend, in a new initiative.

However, Ireland are powerless to intervene where Sexton is concerned and Schmidt will be watching carefully, with the 2 February Dublin clash against Scotland drawing close.

"I expected it," Schmidt said of Sexton's club commitment.

The Ireland boss lamented 28-year-old Sexton playing 13 games in 10 weeks in the autumn approach, eventually succumbing to a hamstring complaint.

Racing rested Sexton for last weekend's 28-3 Heineken Cup hiding at Clermont, but only because they were out of the competition.

Despite the fly-half's involvement in this weekend's Top 14 fixture, Schmidt believes Sexton is "a lot fresher" than in the autumn.

"I think he's in really good shape for the Six Nations," added the Ireland coach.