Walking alongside Jim Hamilton on a rainy day by the Dodder in Clonskeagh, James Lowe was asked to ponder one of Irish rugby’s great imponderables. “What,” the former Scotland second-row asked the Ireland wing, “do Ireland look like without Johnny Sexton?”
It is at the end of a long and revealing chat with the Leinster star who is known for giving straight answers to straight questions and he doesn’t shy away from the reality here.
“You’d be naive to think that we aren’t dependent on Jonathan,” Lowe told Hamilton in the RugbyPass ‘Rugby Roots’ interview.
“Even in that first Test (against New Zealand), when he went off for a HIA (head injury assessment) and didn’t come back, we weren’t the same, we weren’t as well-oiled or as efficient.
“He adds a sense of direction to a team.
“I know he’s an absolute psychopath but when he does talk, you do listen.
“He puts you in positions where you know he’s going to put you through holes and find weak shoulders, so he’s an easy man to follow around.
“He’s got so much experience so that without him . . . you’re not lost, you’re a good rugby player and you have to make a decision for yourself, but he sees things so much quicker, he knows who he’s trying to load up on attack.
“He’s very, very experienced and very much involved.”
Lowe was echoing James Ryan’s comments when we asked him in 2021 what set Sexton apart ahead of the captain’s 100th cap.
“I’d probably put it to you like this – the difference between when he is there at training and when he’s not is pretty noticeable,” he said.
“When he comes into a training session you know it, you can feel it because of how competitive he is and the edge that he always brings.”
So, there you have it. Two senior Ireland internationals explaining that the standards of the team are not the same when the captain is not around.
It’s something many have speculated outside of the camp, but to hear it from the horse’s mouth is another matter altogether and it doesn’t bode well for the upcoming Six Nations now that Sexton is set to miss at least some of the tournament after picking up a suspected fractured cheekbone against Connacht.
Leinster kept their injury bulletin vague yesterday, but the fact that the skipper has gone for a procedure on the injury suggests it’s going to keep him out for at least six weeks and it will need to heal fully before he can play professional rugby again.
The province are well used to operating without Sexton at this stage and Ross Byrne will step in seamlessly, as he always does, but for Ireland the injury opens debate on two fronts.
Who should replace him and what impact will his injury have on the world’s No 1 side’s Six Nations chances in 2023?
To take the latter point first, this could be some short-term pain for long-term gain because it’s more big-game experience for one of Sexton’s understudies.
Realistically, it’ll be Joey Carbery who has been consistently the reserve No 10 for the majority of the cycle; starting the defeat to France last season and playing well and closing out the three wins over New Zealand and victory over South Africa in 2021/’22.
The back-up out-half debate has hovered over this World Cup cycle because Sexton will be 38 by September and, while he has a remarkable ability to get himself fit for internationals, he doesn’t often play so many games back-to-back as he’ll be expected to do in France.
So, it seemed like a lack of foresight to not have Carbery or another alternative ready to back him up.
If he starts against Wales and France, then that’s another two big games to chalk down to experience for the Athy native who would have started against Australia in November but for injury.
He is the next in line despite the charge of Jack Crowley who is looking more impressive every week, even as he shifts between No 10 and 12 for Munster, where Carbery remains the No 1.
Byrne remains a live contender and the way he slotted the winning penalty off the bench against the Wallabies must have given the Ireland coaches increased faith in his ability.
Jack Carty looks to have lost ground while Harry Byrne needs games – and needs them quickly to have a hope.
None of them, however, can come into a Six Nations squad and project the aura and leadership that Sexton can. The challenge for Farrell and his leaders is to make sure the drop-off is not as dramatic as it has been in the past.