Two years out from the quarter-final of the 2023 World Cup, the successor to the throne is no clearer
As of today, we are less than two years away from the World Cup quarter-final in France and we’ll know whether at the 10th time of asking Ireland have been able to break their glass ceiling.
At most, there are 24 internationals to go for Andy Farrell and his team before they get their campaign under way against a European qualifier in Bordeaux. They then take on an Asian/Pacific qualifier, before the real business begins against South Africa.
Who will be wearing the No 10 shirt at the Stade de France on September 23, 2023? Right now, Johnny Sexton is the short-odds favourite.
The 2018 World Player of the Year will be 38 when the tournament rolls around, but 24 months out he remains head and shoulders above his rivals for the throne.
The dominant personality in the national team, Sexton will be captain when the squad for the November series is named on Wednesday, barring injury.
Ireland, it appears, are in danger of not learning their lessons. At the last World Cup, the normally meticulous Joe Schmidt somehow ended up in a situation where Jack Carty started his first competitive game for Ireland in the defeat to Japan.
Four years previously, Ian Madigan started the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina having previously only started internationals against the United States, Canada, Georgia, Scotland (in a World Cup warm-up) and Romania in the pool stages.
Farrell was alongside Schmidt for most of the last World Cup cycle and will have drawn his own conclusions from the disappointing performance in Japan.
Earlier this week, RTÉ commentator Hugh Cahill and former international Donal Lenihan spoke of an encounter with the All Blacks’ 2011 World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry in Tokyo, with Henry expressing his “amazement” that Ireland were going into a World Cup quarter-final with a 34-year-old Sexton running the show.
“If I meet him at the 2023 World Cup in France and Johnny is still holding on to that jersey, you just wonder what he’s going to say!” Lenihan said with a wry chuckle.
He might just have to prepare for that conversation.
Farrell and his management team are fully aware of the predicament they are in with the age and injury profile of their most important player, yet they seem almost powerless to do anything about it.
At 29, Paddy Jackson is probably the closest player in terms of quality to Sexton but he is not available to the coach. From a purely rugby point of view, the decision to revoke Jackson’s contract left the national team in a bind and Carbery’s injury issues have exacerbated their difficulty.
In 2018, the Athy native started the first Test of the series win over Australia having just moved to Munster. In the 2018/19 season, he had a strong Six Nations and played well for his new province before disaster struck on the eve of the World Cup.
Since he’s taken over as coach, Farrell has only had Carbery available for two of his 16 matches in charge. He’s started both.
The coach is under huge pressure to win matches and there is no doubt that picking Sexton is the direct route to that.
Farrell has opted for evolution over revolution since ascending to the top job, handing out 22 new caps including debuts for out-halves Billy Burns and Harry Byrne.
Still, 60pc of the available 1,280 playing minutes available have gone to Sexton and that figure would no doubt be greater if the Dubliner had not suffered injuries that ruled him out during November 2020 and this year’s Six Nations.
That left 513 minutes that were shared between Ross Byrne (193), Burns (180), Carbery (97), Harry Byrne (26) and Conor Murray (17) who filled the slot when both Sexton and Burns were injured against Wales last November.
If we discount the Lions scrum-half from the picture, we are left with four No 10s who have played for Ireland during Farrell’s 16 matches in charge.
Carty was in the squad briefly a year ago, while Madigan remains in Ireland but has not received a call-up.
Munster’s Ben Healy is attracting some attention after a superb display last weekend, while Jack Crowley is highly rated but still some way off consideration.
The pandemic has not helped matters one bit.
Farrell had hoped to lead his team on a tour of Australia in 2020, but that was cancelled.
In 2021, they were supposed to go to Fiji during the Lions series, but that was replaced with home games against Japan and the United States. Even this month’s friendly against the US in Las Vegas has fallen by the wayside.
Four of Ireland’s next 11 matches are against New Zealand. Five of the others are Six Nations games, leaving Japan and Argentina – neither a soft touch – to experiment.
Last weekend, Farrell was in the RDS to watch Harry Byrne get his first start of the season, but the 22-year-old endured a tough 22 minutes before coming off injured.
On came Sexton and the captain served yet another reminder of his pre-eminence.
After the game, his club coach Leo Cullen once again drew parallels between his skipper and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who is still going strong in the NFL at 44.
Brady is a protected species under the league’s rules; he rarely seeks or takes contact. In contrast, one of the first things Sexton did when he came off the bench against Zebre last week was to hurl himself into a ruck.
As well as being the shrewdest game-manager in Ireland, he’s by far the best defensive No 10 by a mile. Sexton still hits hard and, while it’s one of the reasons he’s so widely respected, it’s also a factor in his injury record.
Those who know the position wonder if he still has the agility to prosper against the best teams and the All Blacks game next month will tell a lot. Test rugby is increasingly no country for old men, but Sexton is determined to prove convention wrong.
Warren Gatland’s decision not to bring him to South Africa has provided extra grist to the mill, but Farrell has to start treating the idea of a player of Sexton’s age and injury profile making it to France as a nice bonus rather than something he can bank on.
Managing any succession plan is a delicate balancing act. Within the camp, there are concerns with how the ultimate competitor would cope with being told that he is being sidelined for the greater good.
You only have to go back 12 months to see his stroppy reaction to being replaced in Paris to get an idea of what he thinks of the idea that someone else should do the job.
Ultimately, what Farrell needs is one of the contenders to force the issue.
Carbery is the leading candidate, but he has not hit the ground running this season. A classy broken-field attacker, many feel full-back is his best position. There are question-marks over his tackling, however, and his main focus now is keeping Healy at bay.
Ross Byrne and Billy Burns look well behind and for all the hope and hype about Harry Byrne he hasn’t been able to string enough games together to turn Farrell’s head.
Farrell is in a difficult position, but nobody ever said head coaching is an easy job.
Over in England, his son Owen is a younger version of Sexton under enormous pressure from Marcus Smith and Eddie Jones looks set to back the Harlequin starlet as his man.
Farrell would love if one of the pretenders to the throne came on to the scene like Smith and forced his hand, but right now he will plough on with the elder statesman.
Sexton is still the man, but the longer he remains out in front the greater the risk that Ireland will be home with a bag full of regrets in two years’ time.