comment How Twickenham showdown with old enemy will give us a glimpse into life after Sexton
ANDY FARRELL is keeping Johnny Sexton around this week as his team prepares to go to Twickenham and face their English demons without their talisman and leader.
No doubt the 35-year-old out-half will be on hand to dispense advice and contribute to team meetings, but he’ll have to release the handbrake at some stage and let James Ryan take over the steering.
Once they cross the white line, he’ll be a bystander like everyone else.
For Sexton, it will be tough to let go, but let go he must. This team and this coach must see what life is like without him because he won’t be around forever.
Although this eventuality has always loomed over Farrell and his predecessor Joe Schmidt, neither seemed particularly keen to prepare for it.
Aside from the 2018 loss to Australia when Schmidt gave Joey Carbery an outing and the odd Tier 2 game during a busy period, Sexton has started when fit.
And, despite seeming to come into every international window with some sort of an injury cloud hanging over him, the out-half’s record of getting himself right in time to play for Ireland is impressive.
Since Schmidt took over in 2013, Sexton has started 57 of the country’s 82 Test matches. In that time, six other players have worn the No 10 jersey, with only Paddy Jackson making more than 10 starts.
Although Ireland’s win percentage is actually better without Sexton, the calibre of opposition they’ve faced with him is much stronger than those they’ve faced without him.
That list includes the World Cup 2015 quarter-final loss to Argentina, the 2019 humiliation at the hands of Japan, the two games that cost Ireland a historic series win in South Africa and the only reversal of 2018 against Australia.
The Argentina loss should have been a watershed, but Ireland ended up even more reliant on Sexton four years later with his back-up, Jack Carty, making his first start a few weeks before departing for Japan.
So far, Sexton has been a central figure during Farrell’s disrupted 13-month tenure.
Named captain, he’s been the face of the team. Even after his public display of disaffection towards the coach in Paris, Farrell stood by the 2018 World Player of the Year.
That’s despite the reality that the skipper will be 38 when the next World Cup kicks off in 2023 and, for the coach, this creates a difficult conundrum.
There is no doubt that, on form, Sexton deserves to start every match. But Farrell has a responsibility to be ready to take on the world in three years’ time and not many out-halves are able to compete at that level at that age.
There is an obligation to future-proof the team.
Circumstances haven’t helped.
Of the other out-halves who have started competitive games for Ireland in the past number of years, Paddy Jackson (28) is exiled in London and Ian Keatley (33) is in Italy, while Ian Madigan and Jack Carty are out of favour.
If Joey Carbery was fit it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the longer his absence goes on the more one worries about the 25-year-old’s future.
Sexton saw his former Leinster team-mate as a threat to the extent where he hunted him around Thomond Park in December 2018.
Carbery has only played 11 times since that night and, in his absence, Ireland have struggled to establish a go-to back-up for Sexton.
No doubt Jackson, yesterday named as part of London Irish’s leadership group, would be next in line if the IRFU hadn’t revoked his contract for disciplinary reasons in 2018.
So, it’s his replacement at Ulster, Billy Burns, or Leinster’s Ross Byrne who will take over the running of the team at Twickenham on Saturday.
Burns made his debut for Ireland on Friday night, Byrne has one start – in a record loss away to England – to his name.
Farrell would have earmarked next week’s game against Georgia to gently increase their levels of exposure to Test rugby and he certainly would not have planned to drop them in at the deep end this week.
The loss of Sexton will be felt on several levels. He drives standards through his demanding personality, he leads by dint of his defensive courage and he remains the team’s on-field strategist when they are on the attack. His goal- and line-kicking are reliable, his tactical boot is invaluable.
Although he has had more off days in the last two years than he had in the previous eight, he remains a cut above and, given Farrell’s approach is to hand the players on-field decision-making, the loss of his experience is a big worry.
Furthermore, his leadership skills, in what is a quiet group of players, will be a major loss.
As with the out-halves, Farrell would have selected one of the quieter weekends for Ryan’s first taste of the captaincy but Sexton’s hamstring means his Leinster teammate is likely to be named skipper today.
Even if they’re surrounded by experienced men like Munster captain Peter O’Mahony, Ulster skipper Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Cian Healy, Conor Murray and Bundee Aki, the reality is that Ireland’s key on-field decision-makers are learning on the job in one of the most difficult venues in the world.
It’s not the scenario Farrell envisaged, but it’s the reality of the situation he’s found himself in.
The fear is it could get ugly. Twickenham is an unforgiving place to learn on the job, but Ireland can only postpone the inevitable for so long.
Life after Sexton was always going to arrive at some stage and here we have a sneak preview as to what it will look like.