Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

As Johnny Sexton departs the stage that is world rugby, who can Ireland head coach Andy Farrell turn to next at No 10?

An Ireland all-time great has stepped away from the stage for the final time in Johnny Sexton. One of the big questions in rugby at the moment is, who does Andy Farrell turn to next?

An Ireland Rugby World Cup campaign which began with unprecedented levels of hope and expectancy was ended by the All Blacks at the quarter-final stage.

They now need a new playmaker to lead them into the next era. Below we look at the current options…

Jack Crowley (23, Munster, nine Test caps)

He may be relatively green, but Crowley worked himself into a position as Sexton’s outright No 2 during the World Cup under Farrell, emerging off the bench in wins vs eventual champions South Africa and Scotland, and named as replacement for the agonising 28-24 quarter-final defeat to New Zealand – a Test Sexton played the whole 80 minutes in.

Provided Crowley continues to impress for Munster between now and February, there is a high probability it will be the 23-year-old who will be given the No 10 jersey away vs France in Ireland’s Six Nations opener.

Jack Crowley emerged as Ireland’s out-half behind Sexton during the Rugby World Cup in France

In a direct battle with Ross Byrne in Ireland camp, Crowley moved from third in the pecking order during the Six Nations, to second at the World Cup, with his playmaking ability and superb place-kicking marking him out as a player with massive potential.

Crowley has a touch of maverick about him too, in terms of being able to make a jinking break himself, sending others into space, or looking to control a game via kicking from hand.

The latter two of those modes of play are areas the world has to see more of, but having guided Munster to a first trophy since 2011 last season in their sensational run away from home to the URC title, a confident Crowley looks to be in the Ireland post-Sexton box seat.

Ross Byrne (28, Leinster, 22 Test caps)

What an up and down Test career Byrne has experienced to this point. In his first Test start and third full cap, Byrne started against England at Twickenham in a 2019 Rugby World Cup warm-up Test, and his and the team’s performance resembled a horror show in a 57-15 defeat.

That display was enough to see him miss out on selection for the World Cup in Japan, but in the absence of Joey Carbery through injury in 2020, he did pick up caps under Farrell during the 2020 Six Nations, albeit never playing more than 14 minutes.

Byrne was then handed his second Test start in November 2020, coincidentally against England at Twickenham again. Unfortunately for him, he was poor again in an 18-7 loss, playing far too deep as an Irish side which dominated possession and territory failed to manage virtually anything in an attacking sense.

Byrne played 35 minutes off the bench the following week in another dour Ireland display vs Georgia, and would not start a Test for his country again for another two-and-a-half-years.

Ross Byrne spent a long time out of the Ireland fold between caps

Before that, he picked up a Test cap off the bench vs France in defeat in the 2021 Six Nations – having been picked behind Ulster’s Billy Burns – three minutes off the bench vs England, and then was left out of extended squads for five consecutive Test windows: July 2021 Tests, Autumn 2021, Six Nations 2022, July 2022 tour to New Zealand and Autumn 2022.

His international career appeared all but over. Yet, a trio of injuries to Carbery (concussion), Ciaran Frawley (knee) and Sexton (calf) brought him back onto the bench for a November 2022 Test vs Australia – the last injury occurring in the warm-up for the game.

Byrne replaced Crowley for the final seven minutes in Dublin, showed calmness and control, and kicked an outstanding winning penalty from distance, to once again enter the consciousness of Farrell.

During the 2023 Six Nations, Byrne was firmly back as Ireland’s second-choice behind Sexton, playing in all five games of a Grand Slam campaign, including a 33-minute spell in an epic win over France in Dublin, and 77 minutes in a start vs Italy.

But, in August prior to the World Cup, he started against England in Dublin and came on vs Samoa in Bayonne, and didn’t overly impress in either, while he played just 40 minutes at the World Cup vs Tonga as a second half replacement, with Sexton and Crowley playing in the other four games.

He’s been in, out, done and back again. Could Farrell turn to Byrne once more? Or is it now definitely the end of the road?

Joey Carbery (27, Munster, 37 Test caps)

A number of ill-timed injuries aside, Carbery’s Ireland career had always been far more straightforward than Byrne’s: if he was fit, he was involved and invariably on the park.

That all changed in the season leading up to the 2023 World Cup, however, as Farrell pulled a big surprise when Carbery was omitted from Ireland’s extended squad for the 2023 Six Nations, behind Sexton, Crowley and Byrne.

And that having previously been the clear No 2 behind Sexton, starting in Tests vs Japan, USA, Argentina, France, Italy and Fiji, and featuring in every 2022 Test Ireland played bar one as they picked up a Six Nations Triple Crown, 2-1 series win vs the All Blacks in New Zealand and unbeaten Autumn as the No 1 side in the world.

Joey Carbery went from Sexton’s back-up to out of Ireland’s extended squads altogether

Farrell and co had clearly seen something they weren’t too fond of as well, however, with Carbery’s cutting from the fold swift and brutal, clearly causing a major impact to his form and confidence as, by the end of the season, Carbery was third-choice at Munster behind Crowley and Ben Healy.

Thus, he missed out on August’s RWC warm-ups and the World Cup itself too. It would appear unlikely he could get back involved under Farrell, but with Healy having left to Edinburgh to pursue a Test career with Scotland, and Crowley sure to be away with Ireland a lot, Carbery will have ample opportunity to perform and impress at Munster.

Jack Carty (31, Connacht, 11 Test caps)

One of a number of longshots on our list, Carty remains a talented performer for Connacht and was in the Ireland selection mix as recently as 2022.

Jack Carty was last involved with Ireland in 2022, but is up against it to get back in

The last of his caps came in February 2022, though, and it appears Ireland would need an injury crisis or Connacht would need to sit top of the URC with Carty a main performer for his position to change.

The fact former Munster out-half JJ Hanrahan has been signed by Connacht, and is sure to give Carty big competition for selection at provincial level makes it all the more unlikely.

Billy Burns (29, Ulster, seven Test caps)

If Carty is unlikely, Burns is perhaps even more so, but as the starting out-half at one of four club sides in the country in Ulster, he is still worthy of discussion.

All seven of Burns’ Tests have come under Farrell, albeit they each arrived in the head coach’s second full season in charge.

Billy Burns played in seven Ireland Tests under Farrell, and remains Ulster’s starter, but hasn’t picked up a cap since July 2021

The Autumn Tests of 2020, three Six Nations 2021 games and a 2021 summer Test vs Japan in Dublin saw Burns in green, but he only started two of those and is perhaps best remembered for kicking a late penalty chance dead vs Wales in Cardiff during a Six Nations opening weekend.

Burns has been nowhere near the Test arena since his last cap in July 2021, with the general consensus being he is just short of the required standard and would need to absolutely star for Ulster to even be considered.

Sam Prendergast (20, Leinster, uncapped)

And so to the wildcard pick. Prendergast has only played four times for Leinster, let alone Ireland, but just as Crowley shone in an Ireland U20 Six Nations campaign in 2020, Prendergast led Ireland to an U20 Grand Slam earlier this year and then to the final of the World Championship in the summer.

Sam Prendergast displayed his massive potential with the Ireland U20s last season

At just 20-years-old, the 6’4″ half-back resembles something of a Sexton prototype, and at first few glances would appear a player with special potential.

Expect to see him involved in Leinster European Cup squads and then the Ireland set-up very, very shortly. How quickly will be down to him.

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