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Eamonn Sweeney: 'Andy Farrell has made a mess of his first big decision as head coach - and it could be very costly for Ireland'

Eamonn Sweeney


Handing the role to a player who won't be in the picture for the next World Cup is pointless

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Ireland head coach Andy Farrell during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship Launch 2020 at Tobacco Dock in London, England last week. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship Launch 2020 at Tobacco Dock in London, England last week. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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Ireland head coach Andy Farrell during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship Launch 2020 at Tobacco Dock in London, England last week. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Andy Farrell has made a mess of his first big decision as Ireland manager. His choice of Johnny Sexton as captain suggests the new boss may still be in thrall to the timidly conservative outlook which led to World Cup disaster.

James Ryan was the obvious choice to replace Rory Best. The Leinster second row is Ireland's outstanding player and his ability alone made a strong case for appointing him. Like previously successful incumbents Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, he would have led by example.

He also has experience as a captain, having led Ireland to the runners-up slot in the 2016 under-20 World Cup. There seems little doubt about Ryan's ability to be a success as skipper. His Leinster team-mate Fergus McFadden recently described him as the outstanding candidate to lead the Lions next year in South Africa.

So much for that. There's little chance of Ryan captaining the combined home nations next year when his own country has passed him over.

Instead Farrell has plumped for a player trying to regain form after the worst year of his international career while struggling with injuries. Sexton has enough on his plate without the imposition of extra responsibility.

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James Ryan during Ireland Rugby squad training

James Ryan during Ireland Rugby squad training

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James Ryan during Ireland Rugby squad training

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James Ryan (pictured) has proven himself a leader for the Ireland rugby team, but coach Andy Farrell has opted for the experienced Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

James Ryan (pictured) has proven himself a leader for the Ireland rugby team, but coach Andy Farrell has opted for the experienced Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

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James Ryan (pictured) has proven himself a leader for the Ireland rugby team, but coach Andy Farrell has opted for the experienced Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

The new appointment should have been made with a view to building for the 2023 World Cup. Sexton will be 38 by then so there'll be another captain. Why not give it to the younger candidate now so he can gain as much experience as possible in the role?

Sexton's habit of delivering ostentatious on-field bollockings to under-performing team-mates did little to boost morale during the last fraught 12 months. The impression was of players being excoriated rather than encouraged. It wasn't the kind of thing you'd expect from an Ireland captain.

The out-half's search for form should also have been taken into account. One of Ireland's big problems last year was that while Best's performances didn't seem to justify his selection, the management seemed reluctant to drop the captain. Should Sexton continue to struggle, a similar dilemma could arise. Whereas it's almost impossible to envisage Ryan being in danger of deselection.

Those justifying the decision to snub Ryan claim that at 23 he's too young to shoulder the awesome burden of captaincy. But Richie McCaw was 23 when he became All Blacks captain and they seemed to do OK. Sam Warburton was just 22 when he brought Wales to the World Cup semi-final. Brian O'Driscoll was 23 when he first filled the role for Ireland.

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22 January 2020; Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton, right, and head coach Andy Farrell during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship Launch 2020 at Tobacco Dock in London, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

22 January 2020; Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton, right, and head coach Andy Farrell during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship Launch 2020 at Tobacco Dock in London, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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22 January 2020; Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton, right, and head coach Andy Farrell during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship Launch 2020 at Tobacco Dock in London, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Bobby Moore debuted as England skipper at 23, Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal for the first time aged 22 and Matthijs de Ligt assumed command at Ajax when just 19.

Declan O'Sullivan lifted the Sam Maguire at the age of 22 in 2006 and Michael Murphy was just a month past his 23rd birthday when doing the same thing six years later.

Yet the idea of the captaincy as a kind of civil service post awarded for long service continues to hold sway. It's got another airing in the wake of David Clifford becoming Kerry captain. Clifford, like Ryan, is his side's best player and has frequently displayed his leadership qualities by making vital contributions when the need was greatest.

His appointment was greeted by so much caterwauling about the possible ill effects on the 21-year-old you half expected someone to bring Kerry to court for breaching child labour laws. But there was little evidence of psychological trauma as Clifford gave a typically brilliant performance at Croke Park on Saturday night.

With his team one point down and mayhem breaking out in the final seconds, the Fossa forward was handed a tricky free. Three Dublin defenders were illegally close to him but Clifford hardly seemed to notice while hoisting the ball over the bar to secure the draw. A very special talent.

There's the rub. The young captains previously mentioned were also prodigies and one notable aspect of their talent was maturity beyond their years. In their case, age was just a number. Clifford, who has been burdened with special attention from opposition defenders and massive expectation from supporters for most of his teens, is not your average 21-year-old footballer.

Ryan, who made his international debut as a virtual unknown at the age of 21 and quickly became the outstanding performer on a Grand Slam-winning team, has followed a similarly accelerated path. Players, like people in general, mature at different rates. Some will never be fit for captaincy no matter how much experience they've accrued. Others are tailor made for the role.

His ability as captain was something Ryan's former coaches at St Michaels College in Dublin stressed when the big man made his international debut. "He's not the leader who leads by barking and shouting. He's the kind of guy who, when he speaks, you listen," remembered Director of Rugby Andy Skehan.

One-time Ireland scrum-half Brian O'Meara compared Ryan to Paul O'Connell or Ronan O'Gara in that respect and noted: "He has a very fierce presence about him. He was an unbelievable captain and will be an unbelievable captain."

But not for Ireland. Not yet. That's a pity. Given the chance to make a brave decision, Farrell bottled it.

It will hardly matter in the short term. Ireland will beat Scotland on Saturday and Sexton's captaincy will surely be adequate for the occasion. But overlooking Ryan could be a costly mistake in the long term.

Farrell's call smacks of the risk-averse mentality which did so much damage last year. Hasn't he learned anything from the lessons of Japan?

Irish Independent