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‘You need that’ – Johnny Sexton’s return turns up heat on Joey Carbery rivalry

Fit-again out-half no stranger to the battle to wear Ireland’s famous No 10 jersey

Johnny Sexton relishes competition for places and believes it is for the benefit of the team. Photo: Sportsfile

Cian Tracey

It’s over two years now since Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery clashed in a heated exchange at Thomond Park that threatened to really ignite their rivalry.

However, it hasn’t quite materialised to the extent many anticipated, as injuries have repeatedly hampered Carbery’s ability to close in on Sexton.

The gap is still significant, but it’s difficult to avoid the sense that the only way it will narrow is by Carbery getting more meaningful game-time in the No 10 jersey.

As Sexton addressed the media at yesterday’s captain’s press conference, he was perfectly happy to praise Carbery’s performance in Paris. Yet it was also noticeable how keen he was to point out that his younger challenger had started against Japan, USA and Argentina before doing so at the Stade de France.

None of the aforementioned games were on the same level as France, considering Japan and Argentina currently find themselves in a transitional phase halfway through the World Cup cycle.

Carbery will have felt as if he had done enough to retain his place in the team, even if Sexton recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out recently, but you can imagine there was an added pep in his step when he saw the Ireland captain back in training.

You don’t need a major flashpoint for two players at each other’s throats to manufacture a rivalry, but if Carbery wants to overtake Sexton before he retires, then he will be mindful of stepping it up a notch now that he is nearing a return to full fitness.

Andy Farrell would certainly welcome having more of a selection headache because right now, Sexton is comfortably ahead.

Behind the scenes, the two out-halves have a good relationship, which is a far cry from the days when a fired-up Sexton had no problem doing whatever it took to usurp Ronan O’Gara.

That fire still burns strong, and although Carbery is a much more laid-back character, that doesn’t mean he is any less determined to become Ireland’s first-choice 10.

“Joey is his own man,” Sexton said.

“We’d be different people, of course, but that’s not to say one is right and one is wrong. You probably want different characters at 10 and we need more competition, do you know what I mean?

“To go to a World Cup, you probably need three/four guys that are competing in every position and that’s what we’re striving for.

“Joey, as I said previously, obviously had Japan and America in the summer and then Argentina in November, then France and off the bench against Wales. So he’s racking up those Test matches and building on them and improving and doing well.

“That’s exactly what we need. It’s what the whole squad needs and we need more as well. You need that, like I said, in every position.”

Sexton fulfilling yesterday’s media duties suggested he will return to the team against Italy, and if Farrell was planning to throw a curveball by having his captain on the bench, he certainly didn’t portray the demeanour of a man who wasn’t starting this weekend.

As much as that will frustrate many supporters, put yourself into Carbery’s shoes.

It’s not up to Sexton (36) to hand over his jersey, but the bigger picture means that Ireland could be about to pass up a chance to give Carbery (26) back-to-back Six Nations starts for the first time in his career.

“I’m well used to competition,” Sexton maintained.

“Like, I’ve had it early doors, whether it was with Ronan (O’Gara) and Felipe (Contepomi) with Ireland and at Leinster and when you have the jersey there is always someone else that you are competing with over the years like Ian Madigan, Ian McKinley, Paddy Jackson or Joey obviously.

“Joey has been around a long time now. He is 26 now so I have been used to it for the last five years really. It’s nothing new. Nothing has changed for me.

“What’s important for me is that I prepare as best I can. I can’t worry too much about what other people are doing. You’ve got to concentrate on yourself and that’s what I have always tried to do.

“Of course I respect all the other tens at Leinster. I’ve got great competition with the other three guys there and so it is nothing new. You have to make sure you are fit and firing when you do get the chance to play.”

For Sexton, that’s ultimately all that matters, as he looks to continue to keep Carbery at arm’s length.

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