Ireland’s outhalf succession plan: Who will take Johnny Sexton’s place?

Issues including injuries, exile and lack of experience could leave Ireland wanting

Johnny Sexton is still Ireland’s first choice outhalf but who will replace him? Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Johnny Sexton is still Ireland’s first choice outhalf but who will replace him? Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

 

Even the dogs in the parks and on the beaches, and there’s never been so many, know Johnny Sexton’s age. Increasingly, this predicates his every tweaked hamstring, his every early departure, and even his continuing place in the team.

As he noted wryly himself, with the onset of every new Six Nations there seems to be another injury concern – albeit often inflated – surrounding Sexton’s fitness. Yet in the last three Championships, Sexton has been an ever present, starting all 15 games.

What’s more, in the last seven editions of the tournament, Sexton has started 32 of Ireland’s 35 matches, missing two wins over Italy and the defeat by Scotland in 2017.

As that latter game illustrates, Ireland remain more dependent upon Sexton than any other player. Yet, since the start of the 2017-18 season he has been part of the quarter-final defeat by New Zealand, the last two losses against England in the Six Nations, that grim finale in Cardiff two seasons ago and the finale in Paris last October, when the brouhaha over his disgruntled exit rather overlooked the fact that he probably shouldn’t have been replaced anyhow.

An ever-present in the 2018 Grand Slam and both wins in Australia, he’s also started 21 victories in that time, and even in the Autumn Nations Cup Ireland’s best two performances were the wins over Wales and Scotland. In the nine games he hasn’t started Ireland have won five – two over Italy, one over the USA, a warm-up game against Wales and that desultory victory over Georgia. In the others, Ireland lost in Australia, when he was a replacement, lost twice in Twickenham (including a record defeat) and, of course, were beaten by Japan in the World Cup.

Sexton’s value also goes beyond his playmaking and goalkicking. Over the last decade and more, he has always been one of the team’s standard-bearers and drivers, be it Leinster and Ireland. Were it not for his age there wouldn’t even be a debate about the number 10 jersey.

Brittle

Billy Burns, based on his composed displays off the bench against Wales and England and one start which was cut short after 45 minutes against Georgia, deserves his place on the bench, but no more.

He looks tidy, takes the ball to the gain line and has an inventive kicking and passing game, although he does seem a little brittle physically.

Ross Byrne has been unlucky to draw the short straw in that his two starts have been in Twickenham. Jack Carty could be considered unlucky not to make the squad after his tour de force in Connacht’s win over Leinster but none have made the case to start ahead of Sexton.

Harry Byrne, Ciarán Frawley (at 10 or 12), Ben Healy and Jack Crowley might well have the potential to play for Ireland one day, but as yet have still not started a game in Europe. When Sexton made his Test debut, he was a Heineken Cup winner.

In truth, the IRFU have been unlucky with their succession planning.

Were it not for the events of his infamous night out in Belfast and its fallout, Paddy Jackson would now be Sexton’s rival and heir apparent. At 29, he is playing better than ever for London Irish.

Paddy Jackson has been in impressive form for London Irish. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Paddy Jackson has been in impressive form for London Irish. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Last Sunday he provided another all-round masterclass in their win over Newcastle. He was creator-in-chief for two of their four tries with a perfect cross-kick and neatly executed wrap, and landed his five kicks.

“It’s going to start a controversial conversation,” said Craig Doyle on BT Sport after the game, when doing just that. “Because arguably Paddy Jackson is the best Irish qualified outhalf at the moment, but still he is not playing for Ireland and we all know why. We don’t need to dig that up again, but is that a conversation that Andy Farrell is going to want to have?”

“I think it needs to be had, and it’s been dictated by Paddy Jackson’s performances,” ventured Ugo Monye, the former English and Lions winger turned pundit and columnist. “It’s only controversial depending on which lens you look through it.

“I’m not a politician, I’m here as a rugby pundit and I want to focus on his rugby, and at the moment, there’s not a better Irish flyhalf that’s performing week-in, week-out. He’s excellent, and international rugby dictates many things but from a flyhalf it’s control, and the variety and execution of some of his kicking today was truly exceptional.”

Lawrence Dallaglio then correctly pointed out: “He is an Irish player playing outside of Ireland,” and hence this was a decision based on policy rather than form, “because certainly what he’s produced week-in, week-out for London Irish deserves recognition and selection.”

While Doyle added that Jackson “is not welcome back in Ireland … because he was let go out of the Irish system”, Monye countered that Sexton was picked for Ireland during his two-year stay with Racing 92.

“Of course it is a tough conversation and it will split opinions but on sheer performance he’s good enough to play international rugby. That, for me, is not a debate,” said Monye.

After Jackson had his contract terminated, the union re-routed Joey Carbery to Munster. The gifted one, still only 25, would assuredly have been the rival and heir apparent but for his cruel run of injuries and hopefully will return and develop into the Test outhalf he is capable of becoming.

Open and shut

As for now, in Ronan O’Gara’s view, it’s an open and shut case regarding the jersey he wore 128 times with such distinction.

“For me, Johnny is by far the best number 10 in the country at the minute. Will that still be the case in 12 months’ time? It depends on a number of factors.

“One of them is Joey Carbery’s fitness. The other is can Johnny keep going to the form he has? It becomes harder and harder with the more miles on the clock and the older you get, especially at 36 years of age, which he’ll be in the summer.

“But he’s a competitor and he wants to play for Ireland, and you can’t take that away from him. Someone has to stand up and take that position, and until that happens there isn’t an argument about it.

“The next World Cup seems like a long time away. A week is a long time in rugby so there will be opportunities for other people but at the minute, in the case of Munster, there’s Ben Healy and there’s Jack Crowley, Joey Carbery and there’s JJ Hanrahan but these guys aren’t knocking on the door of international rugby yet. There’s Harry Byrne and Ross Byrne in Leinster, and yeah they are potential challengers to take over but they’ve to do it at club level and that doesn’t look near to happening yet to me.”

Leinster’s Harry Byrne could be in the frame for the future. Photo: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho
Leinster’s Harry Byrne could be in the frame for the future. Photo: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho

There’s an argument out there that Ireland should be building for the next World Cup now, by fast-tracking one or two of the aforementioned into the Irish team.

However, that ignores the acute need to perform well here and now in the Six Nations. The IRFU demands it, as does Andy Farrell and, indeed, as O’Gara stresses, so do the rest of the squad.

“I think probably what the public may not be aware of sometimes is that the best players want to play with the best players and we see 80 minutes on a Saturday but during the week there’s four multiplied by 80 minutes’ training times where players have got to shape up to each other.

“When you’re a competitor and you want to win medals you need to have your best players on the pitch, so whether they’re 19-year-olds or whether they’re 35-year-olds they usually find a way to get onto the pitch. In that regard, nothing has changed.

“Where Ireland can make improvements or take learnings from the previous World Cup, is that the competition for places needs to be probably a little bit better and I think that’s happening as it is.”

Besides, who’s to say that Sexton won’t make it to France in 2023?

In any case, the World Cup can wait.

Five of Ireland’s Young Guns

Harry Byrne (Leinster): The 21-year-old younger brother of Ross, he was a member of the Ireland under-20s Grand Slam-winning campaign in 2019. In his second season with Leinster (18 caps, 124 points) he has demonstrated his vast array of skills, kicking and handling, plays flat to the gain-line, is brave and happy to personally challenge the defensive line. Game management is evolving.

Ciarán Frawley (Leinster): The 23-year-old Skerries-born player has made 33 appearances (139 points) for Leinster, split largely between the outhalf and inside centre positions and is a very capable operator in both positions. At six foot three inches he’s an imposing figure but there is a lovely blend to his skill-sets, passing, kicking, running, offloading and vision.

Ben Healy (Munster): Part of Ireland’s 2019 under-20 Grand Slam-winning squad, the 21-year-old boasts 14 appearances for the province (82 points), 11 this season including five starts. The Tipperary native possesses a huge boot, a steely nerve and his all round game is maturing under the watchful eye of Stephen Larkham.

Jack Crowley (Munster): His performances for the Irish 20s last season mark him as an outstanding prospect and it’s therefore surprising that the 21-year-old has been given just 14 minutes for the senior Munster team this year. He possesses all the assets required to play Test rugby, honed and encouraged initially at school and club level in Bandon by Regis Sonnes.

Jack Crowley has shown promise at Munster. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Jack Crowley has shown promise at Munster. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Michael Lowry (Ulster): Although all bar one of his 10 starts for Ulster this season have been at fullback, the 22-year-old retains the attributes of a top quality outhalf, the position in which he played virtually all of his rugby at underage level. Beautiful balance, footwork, pace, variety to his kicking and passing, it will be interesting to see if his medium to long term future is in the 10 jersey. – John O’Sullivan

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