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Gordon D’Arcy: Few realistic pretenders yet to Sexton’s throne

If the current pecking order remains, Farrell will need the veteran outhalf for next World Cup

Johnny Sexton remains both the problem and the solution per se. If that sounds like fortune cookie wisdom it's not meant to be, instead a statement that at 36-years of age he remains the premier outhalf in Irish rugby.

In an ideal world or one where the succession in personnel is conducted in an orderly fashion he might currently be ensconced in a mentoring role both at Leinster and Ireland, starting a limited number of games, while if required, also offering that experience and guile to close out the bigger matches: 'a break glass in case of emergency figure'.

That’s a theory. The practice is that he is on merit first choice for his province and the national team. It’s not in his nature to step aside, that cussedness an essential character trait, integral to his personality and one that has served him admirably particularly in adversity. He was never going to simply hand over a jersey. An issue for Leinster and Ireland is no one has been able to take it from him.

When Stuart Lancaster arrived in Leinster he challenged Sexton to push out his career in a playing capacity, citing quarterback Tom Brady as an example of a player whose drive was undiminished as his 40th birthday approached.


Brady, 44, threw for over 400 yards and five touchdowns for the first time in his career at the weekend, less than eight months after leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl title. Sexton will be 38 in the summer prior to the 2023 Rugby World Cup and, as things currently stand, Irish rugby might need him to channel his inner Brady.

In every player's career there is a finite point when his or her best is no longer good enough to hold off a rival. I can recall from personal experience the moment I realised I was no longer pre-eminent in my position. Robbie Henshaw came to take my Ireland jersey. A small injury meant I missed the first match in a November Test series and I watched the new partnership of Robbie and Jared Payne flourish.

The balance in training had also shifted as Robbie started to outpace and outthink me. I was at an age, or more accurately a standard, where I could no longer fend him off. There is a perverted sense of satisfaction in helping a young player to fulfil his potential, although the initial feeling isn’t warm and fuzzy. You help to prime someone to take your place and then fight tooth and nail to stave off that day.

It is a paradox but also represents the eternal cycle of a successful sporting culture within an organisation. I served as an apprentice to Kevin Maggs and Rob Henderson with Ireland and they helped to mould me into the player I would become, one capable of thriving at elite level.

The Ireland national team has been going through a transition phase in personnel terms. Hugo Keenan has won the playing rights to Rob Kearney's jersey, while others like Craig Casey, Ronan Kelleher or Dan Sheehan are offering some very persuasive arguments that they should occupy the walk-on roles next month.

That is not the case at outhalf. There is a genuine dilemma 22 months out from the Rugby World Cup as to the identity of the person best equipped to drive Ireland in the number 10 jersey. As things stand that person is Sexton. There are two questions that follow. Can Johnny maintain those levels? Is someone capable of displacing him during that time frame?

Unfortunate setback

Last Saturday Sexton's arrival on 23 minutes for the injured Harry Byrne immediately smoothed over the wrinkles of Leinster's attacking patterns. In a short space of time he effectively negated Zebre's blitz defence that had been causing Leinster problems.

Harry Byrne’s injury profile is raising questions about his durability. Last season injury denied him an opportunity to be measured in the context of a Champions Cup match ahead of the international window; an unfortunate setback but one that adds to the growing frustration that he can’t stay fit enough for long enough.

He needs a body of work from which to gauge his progress, to see if he can problem-solve on the pitch when things are sticky. On Saturday Harry Byrne played flat, got his passes away under huge pressure, but didn’t check Zebre’s line-speed in defence. His injury prevented any evaluation on whether he would have been able to find a satisfactory resolution.

Sexton arrived and immediately unpicked the Zebre defence. He understood where the space was and how to get players and the ball into gaps. The Italians were no longer able to rush up indiscriminately searching out opponents to clatter behind the gain-line. Leinster had dropped their standards and Johnny pushed them back up.

He started by encouraging forwards to carry either off scrumhalf Luke McGrath or himself to create pivot plays. This served to slow the line speed of the defence and then, off second touches, his game management caused all sorts of problems for the visitors. That clear-eyed decision-making simplified the game for his team.

Zebre were no longer able to stymie Leinster and instead their defence was forced to become passive rather than proactive; once that happens it is game over.

Watching the impact at pitch level on Saturday I spent a bit of time wondering if Johnny could emulate the influence that Tom Brady continues to wield. For rugby’s playmaker the physical attributes/requirements of playing 10 are vastly different to other positions. For example at 12 when I lost a yard of pace it was terminal.

I had built a game on a change up over two strides, and then relied on power to force a misstep from the defender. In essence I could control the collision, minimising contact to get over the gain-line. Once that stopped I could never physically impose myself on opposition players and my value began to recede.

Sexton is in a position that if he loses a yard of pace – and he almost certainly has lost it – there is little impact on the net return. His game is about movement rather than speed of foot. He is not Marcus Smith or Beauden Barrett where defenders lie awake at night at the thought of being stepped inside or out.

Sexton resembles the eye of Sauron; all seeing. His ability to vary his kicking and passing game remains unparalleled amongst his rivals in Irish rugby. He reads the game, understands the nuances required, the ability to represent one thing and do another and even though less fleet of foot can leave defenders transfixed with a ‘show-and-go’.

He can still lay his hands on the physical tools, the more pertinent question is whether he can retain the motivation to get him to France 2023. There is a moment in every player’s career when they have to decide if it is worth it.

Do you want to go in an hour early to prime your body for training, stretching and lubricating aging joints? The foam roller becomes a best friend and a buffer. For me Sexton isn’t there yet, at the point where the doubts drown out every other consideration; he knows that if he is fit he is better than anyone else. It is easier to keep going in those circumstances.

Internal confidence

This is an internal confidence that everyone has when they are on their game. At the moment there is not a challenger in sight. This is far from ideal for Ireland coach Andy Farrell with less than 20 matches before the World Cup. He is going to have to make some big calls.

Joey Carbery has yet to rediscover his mojo on the pitch, one that made him a shoo-in initially as Sexton's heir apparent. The longer the elapsed time, the greater the concern; he needs to prove that he can consistently manage high -profile games for Munster never mind Ireland.

Ben Healy played superbly against a Scarlets team that was dire on the day. He deserves a shot in the 10 jersey for a fully-loaded Munster team. Johann van Graan needs to back Healy in the short term and reverse his role with Carbery.

When JJ Hanrahan was in the mix last season and Carbery was injured, Van Graan went with the Kerryman for the bigger games. Healy has continued to work hard and there are signs of a growing maturity and confidence this season. That needs to be recognised and rewarded.

Jack Crowley has the backing of Ronan O'Gara but not Van Graan with the Munster coach limiting the young Bandon pivot's match minutes. It would be interesting to ascertain that if Crowley had his time over whether he would accept O'Gara's offer to join La Rochelle. Would a six-month loan move be in his best interest and that of Munster, a chance for regular first team rugby and to see if he can deliver on that promise?

If the pecking order of Irish 10s remains largely unaltered over the coming season, then by default the decision will be made for Farrell – he will need to back Sexton to the 2023 World Cup. Jack Carty, Ross Byrne and Billy Burns have had the chance over the last two years to stake a claim but none have done so with conviction. There is no real debate.

If Van Graan’s conservatism in selection continues then he will back Carbery over Healy. Crowley is unlikely to see any meaningful game time and this coupled with Harry Byrne’s injury profile means that they will remain on the outside looking in. If that scenario unfolds then any argument for change is redundant.

As Brady so capably demonstrated, the overarching concern for a team and coaching staff is a player’s ability to perform at elite level. Sexton retains that capacity. He is the best. So until that changes long live the king!