Monday 27 January 2020

Race for number 10: The five who are vying to take the throne of Johnny Sexton

With the Leinster man's vice-like grip on power weakened, the door has opened for the other pretenders to lead the Ireland backline

Jonathan Sexton is struggling to be fit for the start of the Six Nations
Jonathan Sexton is struggling to be fit for the start of the Six Nations

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

BRITAIN went to the polls this week, but for one English ex-pat stationed in south Dublin there was more on the mind than Boris v Jeremy and all of that, because there is a vacancy at No 10 looming large on this side of the Irish Sea that he is charged with filling.

As he prepares to welcome his Ireland squad to Abbotstown next weekend before naming his first Six Nations squad in the New Year, Andy Farrell has big decisions to make.

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Captaincy is top of the agenda but in the wake of the news that Johnny Sexton is in a race to be fit and is unlikely to play before the tournament due to a knee injury, the new coach has a call to make about who wears the most famous jersey in Irish rugby against Scotland in February.

Sexton will be 38 at the next World Cup, but he was the bookies' favourite to be named captain by Farrell until the market was quietly removed from websites this week after his injury put a spanner in the works.

For Farrell, there is a delicate balancing act at play.

Momentum

On the one hand, he must be seen to move on from the Joe Schmidt era and the World Cup fallout by putting his own stamp on things and introducing some fresh blood, while on the other he knows how important a good Six Nations will be to getting the crowd onside and generating momentum.

He will, of course, make changes, but nothing will signal his intentions more than the name on the No 10 jersey and Sexton's injury has taken that decision out of his hands.

Before he went down last Saturday, the Dubliner had shown an ability to put his Japan disappointment behind him and had been in the kind of form that meant he was a shoo-in for Six Nations selection.

Since Ronan O'Gara retired, the job has been Sexton's and he has been unchallenged with Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Joey Carbery and Jack Carty acting as deputies with no real chance of unseating him from power. Now, he is incapacitated and that leaves a vacuum at the top. The understudies have a chance to make a real claim so that when the main man returns it is to a world of uncertainty.

Farrell has been touring the provinces and taking in the matches, while he will consult his assistants and, in particular, seek counsel from his new attack coach Mike Catt.

But at the end of the day, it's a one-man electorate and it's first past the post as he assesses the field and decides who is the right man to take Ireland forward for the next four years.

THE INCUMBENT

Johnny Sexton

(Age 34, caps 88)

Manifesto: A trusted and respected elder statesman and global figure, Jonathan Sexton has taken permanent residence in Ireland's No 10 shirt since Ronan O'Gara retired and has led the team brilliantly.

Popularity rating: Recognised on the world stage last year, his popularity back home remains strong but there are doubts about his longevity after a disappointing World Cup.

Prospects: Likely to start and even captain the side if he can prove his fitness, but his inability to play between now and the Six Nations hands an opening to the young hopefuls eager to take power. Despite a poor performance in the quarter-final in Japan, he hit the ground running on his return but his injury is ill-timed.

THE HOTSHOT

Joey Carbery

(Age 24, caps 22)

Manifesto: A leader of substance and style with his best years ahead of him, he showed ruthless ambition and self-belief by trading his home province for Munster in search of the big job. Tipped for greatness by Graham Henry and having beaten the All Blacks on debut, he has been ear-marked for this job for a long time. Lots of promise.

Popularity rating: The public love a shiny new thing to hang their hopes on and the 24-year-old has the talent and vibrancy to get fans excited and put bums on seats. The problem is he hasn't been able to get on the field to put together a track record due to injury.

Prospects: If he can come back from injury this Christmas and stay fit through January while playing well, then Carbery will be Ireland's out-half against Scotland on February 1. Unfortunately, his ankle problem is just the latest in a long line of injuries that will cast a shadow on his ability to lead the backline long-term.

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Ireland's Joey Carbery in action. Photo: Issei Kato/Reuters

THE CONTINUITY CANDIDATE

Jack Carty

(Age 27, caps 10)

Manifesto: Emerged as a player of substance last season and took advantage of Sexton and Carbery's injuries to play a role at the World Cup, starting against Japan. An intelligent player, his off-the-cuff style can lead to great moments while he's a good defender.

Popularity rating: The crash against Japan happened on his watch and, while he wasn't entirely to blame and was superb when things were going well, his inability to take back control of the game led to doubts about his leadership. He could justifiably argue that a lack of previous involvement went against him.

Prospects: Unfortunately, since Japan his form has dipped and he's at risk in his own constituency from a young gun named Conor Fitzgerald who made hay while he was on international business. Carty needs a big few weeks to get back into form.

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Jack Carty of Ireland

SAFE PAIR OF HANDS

Ross Byrne

(Age 24, caps 3)

Manifesto: Solid, if unspectacular; Byrne has learnt his trade under the watchful eye of Sexton at the Leinster finishing school and is the closest thing to the 2018 World Player of the Year in the Irish system. An excellent, unflappable goal-kicker who runs the game well, he also has a world-class cross-kick.

Popularity rating: Doesn't have the same appeal of a Carbery, but his performances in blue have earned him respect and he has a chance to build that in Sexton's absence. Not one to get fans out of their seats individually, but brings others into the game well and executes a game-plan to the letter.

Prospects: Much depends on Carbery's form and fitness, but Byrne looks in good shape to be the leading man in February if Sexton can't recover. After all, he is part of a Leinster machine that is motoring nicely and is untainted by Japan. His only Ireland start was a disaster, but he was far from alone in Twickenham.

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Ross Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

RENAISSANCE MAN

JJ Hanrahan

(Age 27, caps 0)

Manifesto: A bright prospect in his youth, Hanrahan can offer a compelling story of a man who has done it the hard way by bouncing back again and again. Currently the Munster starter and revelling in the role, he is putting the lessons he learnt along the way to good use.

Popularity rating: Since he was nominated for World U-20 Player of the Year in 2013, fans have had a soft spot for the Kerry out-half with the capacity to break games open with his off-the-cuff approach. He's learnt to run a game while retaining that game-breaking ability and would be a popular addition to the squad.

Prospects: Again, he is probably reliant on Carbery making a slower-than-expected return but he has started big games in recent weeks and done well and, if he can thrive against the Saracens rush defence this weekend, he'll put himself firmly in contention for that coveted slot.

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JJ Hanrahan in action for Emerging Ireland

THE OUTSIDER

Billy Burns

(Age 25, caps 0)

Manifesto: A skilful operator who learnt his trade at Gloucester and with the England underage set-up, Irish-qualified Burns made the move to Ulster where he has struck up a strong partnership with John Cooney.

Popularity rating: Relatively unheralded beyond the northern province, he's something of an unknown quantity with his half-back partner getting most of the plaudits for his match-winning heroics.

Prospects: Part of a winning team and has a superb tactical and attacking kicking game, Burns is a talented player but looks a little light for Test level and until he takes more responsibility at Ulster, it's hard to see him taking the step up.

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