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Tony Ward: 'Sexton must put needs of team-mates first to be a success as captain'

Tony Ward


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Jonathan Sexton during an Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton during an Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Jonathan Sexton during an Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The role of captain in rugby has changed significantly. There was a time, pre-professionalism, when the captain's input was more important and more relevant than that of the coach. The nature of the game and the massive psychological element central to it made rugby the code in which the captain could never be the token representative of the county champions, so to speak.

There are many elements to becoming a captain and leader. Proven ability is, of course, central and experience can help enormously in that key regard. Tactical nous in the white heat of battle - or, in simple terms, fire in the belly but ice in the veins - is also a core ingredient.

But push me for the ultimate quality and I will state unselfish approachability. At whatever level, I want my captain to be approachable.

As of now, the jury for the new incumbent is out. Johnny Sexton the player is a class act, a top-quality out-half and game manager for school, club, province and country. On a personal level, I like him a lot. Perhaps there is an element of bias given we share the same route from grassroot to green.

The captain now has far less time to exert his influence on match day, given the input of the coaching and ancillary staff. That in itself is no bad thing as it allows the chosen leader to concentrate on his own game outside of the white lines.

However, it is when those lines are crossed and all hell breaks loose that he must think and act in the best interests of 14 others. To that end, I need to be convinced that Andy Farrell's preferred choice is the right one, but I am certainly open to convincing. I want Sexton to succeed as successor to Rory Best, who's on-field demeanour as captain was exemplary.

Ciaran Fitzgerald was the best I played under because as captain he was selfless to a fault. He demanded nothing of others he didn't give of himself, but if you didn't quite hit his standards he let you know discreetly and privately.

His on-field mantra was encouragement to and for others. He played in that typical take-no-prisoners way but when it came to getting the best from his team, he was exceptional. In Fitzgerald's book, individual mistakes were designed to be transformed into a collective way forward.

By dint of personality, we are what we are. As a sportsman, I was far removed from an all-smiling on-field entity but other than at under-age level, I was never captaincy material.

Sexton, in the opinion of those who matter, specifically Farrell, is the best choice available. My own preference would have been for James Ryan, as good enough is old enough, but I dearly want Sexton to prove a smart interim choice.

In specific terms, I want to see him communicate more freely, more openly and much more positively with players as well as match officials. I do not buy this Roy Keane/Keith Wood 'real winners must be nasty' stuff.

Sexton must consistently remind himself of how he felt when he was making the big breakthrough. It is fair to say that he had one or two issues to deal with back then.

Treating others as you might handle being treated yourself is not sufficient as captain. You must adapt. Please may we be spared water bottle kicking, as in Rome, or tantrum throwing, as in Limerick.

Settled

The stage could not be better set. The Scots, who lost their way even more dramatically than us in Japan, appear to still be in self-destruct mode given the Finn Russell carry-on in the past week.

Darcy Graham's loss through injury is also massive. He is to them what Jordan Larmour can be to us. Adam Hastings has settled into the pro game well at Glasgow and yes, armed with the family DNA, appeared more than comfortable at the highest level when lining out instead of Russell against Russia at the World Cup.

From an Irish perspective, Farrell and his newly-assembled coaching team have struck a fine balance. I continue to advocate the next-game philosophy for Irish rugby. We must always prepare in the here and now. I get the Conor Murray call - continuity at half-back - and also hope that cool temperament will assist his newly-appointed half-back captain at 10.

Were the call mine, I would have gone with John Cooney based purely on his outstanding recent form. If there is a more accurate barometer for selection I don't know what it is.

The stakes are loaded heavily in the Irish corner and anything but a home win would be tantamount to disaster. Ireland by 12.

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