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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
David Kelly

Pressure on Andy Farrell to make key number ten decision

Pair of tens: Joey Carbery, left, and Jack Crowley of Munster after their side's Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse last month. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Forget Celtic Symphony, the more painfully sounding strains of a Bittersweet Symphony will be lodged firmly in the heads of many Irish sports supporters this week.

Once again, those who care deeply about such matters will be dearly hoping that the X-rays being conducted upon Jonathan Sexton’s battered visage produce positive tidings.

If there were two questions which dominated those ceaseless 2023 questionnaires, they were either (1) Can Sexton’s Ireland win the World Cup? or (2) Can Ireland win a World Cup without Sexton?

Depending on the medical prognosis unfurled by his employers this morning, we may go a long way to getting a preview of the answers sooner rather than later, should Andy Farrell’s supreme out-half be forced to miss the Six Nations.

Ireland’s world No 1 status will be sorely tested by the absence of their No 1 player.

And now, with only nine months to go to the World Cup, and only 33 days before Ireland tackle Warren Gatland’s Wales in the Six Nations, Farrell has not only to divine who is his first-choice second choice, but also who his preferences are as emergency back-ups.

Especially since his principals find such difficulty in remaining fit that it seemed even Liz Truss managed to spend more time at No 10 last year.

New Zealand may have won a World Cup with a player who went from fly fishing to fly-half in less than a week but Ireland cannot afford to roll those dice.

Particularly since so many believe the over-reliance on Sexton is itself a gamble that now, once more, may have shredded a slew of ante-post dockets.

The consensus within the sport that holds Sexton as the sine qua non of Ireland’s World Cup challenge also shares the belief that Joey Carbery remains the standout stand-in stand-off.

Personally, we would ask them all to stand down as we persist with the belief that, aside from the fact his physical fitness remains less reliable than Sexton’s, Carbery is a much better
full-back than out-half.

And yet the Irish selectors seem unmoved, despite their occasional gambit of moving him around themselves, and if a team to face Wales were announced now, in Sexton’s absence, Carbery would hold the keys to No 10.

Many will wish him well after a career which, seven years on from a spectacular spring blooming, remains unfulfilled with injuries, an unconsummated transfer and constant uncertainty at international level dimming the effervescence that sparkled so wonderfully in his youth.

While it may be easy to categorise Ireland’s two leading out-halves – despite our own quibbles with Carbery’s claims – the increasingly obvious evidence of their physical frailties render the identity of their alternatives just as important.

It is easier to rule out some contenders.

Judging by the actions of the Irish brains trust, both Billy Burns and Jack Carty may remain trapped in amber within the ‘in case of emergency break glass’ section but nobody has bothered – or even cared – to notice that the hammer has gone missing.

If some of those out west are slowly losing trust in their talisman, and an appalling place-kicking ratio, then what are those vested in running the national side supposed to think?

As for Burns, he is as distantly removed from the Irish set-up as he was before seeking resident status here and he could soon form part of a large exodus as Ulster continue their lurch from farce to crisis and back again.

In a landscape commanded by performance director David Nucifora, it seems odd that in a World Cup year, half of the Irish teams he supervises have no prospective tournament No 10s while the other half have too many.

An obvious solution, and not a novel one, would be for him to ensure such a situation is amended.

Which brings us to Ben Healy, the forgotten man of Irish rugby, who dusted down the cobwebs since his fine November starring role in the home of Cork GAA and delivered a scintillating late cameo as Munster swept aside pathetic Ulster.

With rumours still swirling that Scotland may swoop, two things have become obvious to us – even if he has been lukewarm before, Nucifora should insist that Healy stays in Munster.

And if Munster remain lukewarm about Healy, then the folks who pay all the wages should ferry him up north where he can play every week until the end of the season.

Should he stay – and it will be fascinating to see what 10-12 Munster select on the 4G pitch against a vulnerable Lions side this Friday – his partnership with Jack Crowley could cause quite a stir.

Particularly if it prompts Graham Rowntree, a man not wedded to favouritism, to decide it is a formula that may work without Carbery who may also struggle to get in at 15, given Mike Haley’s imperious form.

“The ability to move Jack along one slot and bring Ben on is a real option for me,” noted the Englishman in Belfast, pointedly.

Nonetheless, although Ireland will need three (fit) out-halves, do Munster? This is a dilemma they must solve soon while belatedly beginning to play the collective game to match individual talents.

Leinster, of course, harvest the remaining gaggle of wannabe World Cup 10s; sadly, Ciarán Frawley and Harry Byrne play all too rarely and, when they do, they get injured too often.

Of course, they have the natural substitute for Sexton in the form of Ross Byrne, who has been performing the role with alacrity for many years, despite bizarrely being dismissed by so many.

It seems Leinster can remain just as effective and easy on the eye with Sexton’s deputy in their driving seat but for some reason the same does not apply at international level.

No shortage of candidates, then.

And if he is indeed without his captain Sexton, Irish head coach Farrell must not only identify his starter for No 10 but also the best available alternatives.

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