Of course, rugby is a sport where the collective takes precedence over the individual. For Ireland, we will nevertheless have to cope without Jonathan Sexton, playing master, leader and boss of the XV du Trèfle for 14 years. A long mandate where Ireland - whether as a national team or with the province of Leinster - has established itself as a stronghold in world rugby. Except that this glorious chapter ended with terrible disappointment in the quarter-final of the last World Cup against the All Blacks (24-28), as in 2019 in Japan. And Sexton hung up his boots after 118 selections since 2009. Leaving behind him a big void, since the three potential candidates to take over the flocked tunic of number 10 only have 12 selections between them. Starving.
For the first post-Sexton match, this summit shock on Friday against the Blues, coach Andy Farrell had to deal with the injury absence of Ross Byrne (28 years old, Leinster) and he handed over the keys to the truck green to Jack Crowley, Munster fly-half (24 years old) who has only nine caps (only four as a starter), rather than the near-neophytes Ciaran Frawley and Harry Byrne, both Leinster players but only three caps combined. Despite this (forced) fresh wind, Andy Farrell wants to continue to move forward, to reach the summits. More than two-thirds of his team (11 out of 15 starters) were present during the loss against New Zealand. Continuity - apart from the key opener position - is therefore essential.
“Is this a new beginning? Not after everything we have experienced, says the English technician, father of Owen Farrell. We want to continue to grow, we want to continue to evolve our game, and you don't do that by starting from scratch. The battle to earn your place in this team is paramount, and it must remain so, so this is the start of a new Six Nations. And he asserts: “I do not subscribe to this idea of a four-year cycle which starts again when a World Cup is over.” Before its sudden exit (once again) in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, Ireland remained on an incredible series of 17 consecutive victories.
Also read: Serge Blanco: “We cannot blame the referee to explain a failure”
The armband has since been entrusted to the rough flanker Peter O’Mahony (101 caps), who perfectly embodies the Irish “fighting spirit”. A form of continuity since the Munster player had already been named captain in the past. “I think I was ten times,” he remembers. But to be there for a campaign in the Tournament is very special and probably the biggest honor of my career so far. I didn't expect it, to be honest. I got a call from Andy and it was a huge honor.”
For his part, the Irish coach wants to believe that the legacy left by Sexton will continue. “There are a few other candidates (for the armband) because we have great leadership within the group, and that will continue because Peter will be there to foster it. Some people, when you walk into a room and they're there, make you feel good in the room, he points out. It’s very important, especially on match days, to have these types of people in the group, and Peter is definitely one of them.” According to him, O’Mahony will have to “just be himself and help others grow. I know he will make the country proud.”
If the Irish want to keep their property and aim for a fifth Grand Slam in their history, they have no right to make an entry error, for what is presented as the final before the time of this 2024 edition. With a notable absentee, center Garry Ringrose, injured, who is replaced by Robby Henshaw who will pair with Bundee Aki, who seems to be having difficulty digesting the last World Cup. “This team knows how to win and they want to get back on track to victory, and there is no better place than France to start,” warns Simon Easterby, the former international third row (65 sel. ) became defense coach of the XV du Trèfle. While knowing full well what awaits him at the Vélodrome: “It will be hostile to Marseille!”