Andy Farrell: Ireland can wean themselves off Sexton dependency
New head coach could choose playmaker to succeed Rory Best as the squad’s captain
Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton in action against Northampton Saints in the Heineken Champions Cup Round 3 match at Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton on December 7th. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ireland’s dependency on Johnny Sexton was, if anything, highlighted as much during the difficult days of 2019 as they were throughout the almost unbroken highs of the year before.
In part, of course, this has been the product of Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson going abroad in the last World Cup cycle, and the hamstring and ankle injuries which have so beset Joey Carbery that Sexton’s anointed understudy has started only two test matches since the opening November 2018 win over Italy in Chicago.
Yet not alone has most of Ireland’s game gone through their chief playmaker, but going into the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand, Ireland had won 20 of the previous 22 test matches in which Sexton had started.
Asked on Monday if Ireland needed to become less reliant on Sexton given the 34-year-old’s age profile, Andy Farrell responded: “Not just because of his age profile, but because of how we want to evolve as a team. I’ve been speaking to Johnny about that over the last couple of weeks and he’s well on board with how we want to push forward.
“No team should be reliant on anyone. I don’t think that 100 per cent is the case, obviously, and Johnny’s been the star man over a few years. I suppose the key man for anyone in our squads going forward is: how are they going to get better as a player? Hopefully Johnny’s part of that as well.”
Against that, of course, Sexton could also be Farrell’s choice to succeed the retired Rory Best as captain, or at any rate a co-captain with Peter O’Mahony should Farrell and the Irish coaching ticket decide the forthcoming Six Nations might be too soon for the 23-times capped, 23-year-old James Ryan.
A completely non-committal Farrell maintained, as is the case, that there was no need to make this call until the eve of the Six Nations.
“I’m obviously in the process because Rory is gone. Yeah, certainly a decision hasn’t been made. We’re going to take our time. We don’t have to make any decisions too early on that so we’ll take our time and we’ll agree in due course.”
Dev is a great example to guys that have not been in the 45-man squad because he’s dusted himself off
In what was something of a pointed selection process for the 45-man squad which has just completed a 24-hour “mid-season squadtake”, Farrell maintained that the door was not closed on those frontline names such as Rob Kearney and Jack Carty, who were omitted from the first get-together under his watch.
It featured a dozen players not even in the expanded 45-man World Cup training squad at the start of pre-season, including eight new caps, and also featured recalls for several of those who missed out on Japan, such as Devin Toner.
“I suppose Dev is a great example to guys that have not been in the 45-man squad because he’s dusted himself off with I’m sure it was a huge blow, really, in terms of not going to the World Cup. But I’ve heard nothing but good as far as his attitude straight away from the disappointment in pre-season training with Leinster, and that’s shown in his performances. So he’s a great example of how you deal with a little bit of a setback and turning it around and using it to your advantage.”
The squad have now moved permanently into the IRFU’s base at the Sports Ireland Campus in Blanchardstown, which features a 75-metre covered 4G pitch with adjoining state-of-the-art gym and medical rooms, thus making the squad immune from the vagaries of the Irish winter.
This will allow for more flow and ease of movement in this purpose-built facility, as well as more interaction with the other national rugby sides, such as the women’s teams and men’s Sevens and Under-20 squads.
So this facility is world-class and the IRFU have been spending a lot of time putting this into place
“I think it’s great for us,” enthused Farrell. “I think a lot of things are going to change because of this. The scheduling will change for us, so how we do things, we’ll be able to do more. There’ll still be hopefully the same clarity, but we’ll be able to do a lot more.
“You can see the flow of the place. The vibe in the session today was great because they’re flowing out from the gym into skills work into the session.
“So this facility is world-class and the IRFU have been spending a lot of time putting this into place. We got a taste of it in the summer but it wasn’t like this, it wasn’t like this at all. When the lads come in for the first time there’s a bit of a wow factor so yeah, this is going to help us progress.”