Irish captain Jonathan Sexton has once again been named as the starting flyhalf in his side’s series defining test against the All Blacks on Saturday.
Sexton’s importance to Irish Rugby over the past decade is beyond reproach. But at the age of 36-years-old and on the back of a head injury assessment (HIA) that forced him from the field in the first test, his inclusion this week has raised some eyebrows.
For so long the talisman around which the Irish game has been built, Sexton’s role in this series was rightly seen as crucial if Ireland were to create history with a first ever win on New Zealand soil.
At the 28-minute mark of the first test his role in the test series appeared to be in doubt. Having been in dominant fashion up until that point, Sexton lost his footing as he rather innocuously slipped hitting his head on the knee of All Black skipper Sam Cane on the way down.
As they should the medical staff removed Sexton from the field of play for a HIA. Playing no further role in the test, Sexton could only watch as a 15-minute window of chaos unfolded as the All Blacks tore Ireland’s defence to pieces.
Lost in the malaise of All Blacks dominance was a strong performance by Sexton’s replacement Joey Carbery.
For his part Carbery has spent the past five seasons being discussed as the heir to the throne when Sexton steps aside.
Injuries, a lack of opportunities and Sexton’s brilliance has derailed his ascension into the starting role.
Thus, the question must be asked, with Sexton’s health once again a topic of conversation was now not the perfect opportunity to see Carbery can do?
Sprinkle in either Harry Byrne or Ciaran Frawley getting an opportunity to come off the bench and suddenly will have a clearer idea of what is behind door number two.
Andy Farrell despite a shaky start has been fantastic for the development of the Irish game. Building on the foundation left by the brilliant Joe Schmidt, Ireland’s attack was much lauded post their dominant victory over the All Blacks in November.
Despite this positivity, the fear in Irish Rugby fan’s minds will be once again sleep walking into another World Cup with questions surrounding depth in key positions.
Outside of Sexton, Tadhg Furlong has been Ireland’s most valuable player since making his debut in 2015. A two times Lions tourist and widely regarded as one of the best Tightheads in World Rugby, the gap between Furlong and his back-ups is significant.
On the other side of the scrum, despite having a few growing pains as he switches to loosehead Andrew Porter has established himself as crucial to the Irish set-up.
Cian Healy whilst undoubtedly a great servant to the Irish game is another aging player who is carrying a knock ahead of the third test.
In the instance of the front row as whole from the outside it would appear that more foresight should have been given towards the next in line. Marty Moore, Tom O’Toole, Josh Wycherley and perhaps even the New Zealand based Oli Jager could’ve been given an opportunity.
In the case of Jager, whilst he has stated his ambitions to represent his adopted New Zealand. The interest however at this point does not appear mutual. With a clear need amongst all of the Irish provinces most notably Munster for international quality props. The IRFU should if they are not already be putting the pressure on to coerce him back to Irish shores.
In the second row, James Ryan has appeared untouchable when fit. Despite his apparent lack of form this season, Ryan has earned the opportunity to round into form. Detractors however may well suggest that others be given an opportunity.
Take the young duo of Joe McCarthy and Ryan Baird. McCarthy is a physical freak in terms of his size and is quite frankly a player that Ireland rarely produce. Baird is incredibly dynamic; this dynamism may see him end up in the backrow but in the interim, he has proven himself worthy of an opportunity in the secondrow. Again, both players need the opportunities to prove they belong.
France 2023 is now fifteen months away, once again there is questions around Ireland’s approach to blooding young players. Having yet to really put a foot wrong, Farrell and his charges could well prove that they have the correct formula for success.
Despite this, the chances of players staying fit for a full World Cup is slim, as such the lack of blooding the next wave of Irish players does not sit easily.
Therefore, the question must be asked, is a series victory and perhaps another Six Nations title more important than a World Cup? Or should the next fifteen months be used to experiment?