Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton is set to retire after the 2023 Rugby World Cup, leaving a legacy that is in many ways unmatched.
A World Cup victory would all but cement his position as the greatest ever player to wear the Irish jersey, making the task of replacing him virtually impossible.
Given an injury sustained in the second half of Ireland’s Grand Slam win against England in March, it is likely that we have seen Sexton play his last professional game in front of a home crowd. The 37-year-old fly half has been ruled out for the remainder of Leinster’s season, as the province search for their fifth Champions Cup title, and to reclaim the URC title.
As the age-old question of ‘Who is going to replace Jonathan Sexton?’ rears its head yet again, here we will preview some of the favourites.
Sexton’s Leinster teammate Ross Byrne is the current favourite to inherit the iconic number 10 jersey and will have an opportunity to prove his worth at club-level over the next few weeks due to Sexton’s injury.
The 28-year-old was seemingly out of the running for an Ireland spot, having not played a game for the national side since a 57-15 defeat to England in a World Cup warm-up game in August 2019. Byrne was dropped after this result, and it was assumed that his Ireland career was over.
However, an injury crisis against Australia in November 2022 saw Jonathan Sexton withdraw from the matchday squad with less than a few hours’ notice. Ross Byrne was subsequently called-up to the bench and, when called upon, scored a last-minute penalty from 40 metres out to give Ireland a narrow 13-10 victory. Ever since, Byrne has been a regular feature for this Irish side as he was often required throughout the 2023 Six Nations to secure vital victories.
Ross Byrne has made steady improvements to his game over the past four years and looks set to play a pivotal role in the upcoming World Cup as Sexton’s backup. His kicking game is one of the best in the world, matched with maturity and composure, he is looking most likely to be the heir to the Sexton throne in the short-term.
When the Ireland Squad for the 2023 Six Nations was released back in January, there were many eyebrows raised as Joey Carbery was dropped in favour of Ross Byrne and Jack Crowley. Having played 37 times for Ireland, Carbery is the most experienced player on this list, but a recent spell of poor form and tough competition has seen the Munster man drop out of the race for the number 10 jersey.
Questions about Carbery’s game arose after the first test defeat to New Zealand when an injury to Sexton forced Carbery into the game earlier than anticipated. Ireland collapsed in the following 20 minutes, leaking four unanswered tries as they trailed 28-5 at half-time.
The 27-year-old is a very different player to Sexton, and as a result he does not suit this Ireland team as well as the likes of Ross Byrne.
Carbery is well known for his excellent running but has failed thus far to live up to his incredibly high expectations. It has also been suggested that he lacks certain leadership qualities required to be a top-level fly-half
Some time away from the spotlight will do Carbery a world of good, as he can focus on himself and focus on regaining his once oozing confidence.
At just 27 years old, Joey Carbery is by no means a write-off.
Carbery’s Munster team-mate Jack Crowley has leapfrogged his superior over recent months to gain the favour of Munster head coach, Graham Rowntree. The 23-year-old also has the ability and the size to be able to play 12, as he becomes a regular feature of this Munster side.
Crowley has played just three times for Ireland and is a case of looking to the future of Irish Rugby. He earned his senior debut in Ireland’s 35-17 win over Fiji in November, scoring two conversions.
In the aforementioned injury crisis against Australia just one week later, Crowley was thrust into the starting line-up after Sexton was ruled out. The Munster man played 70 minutes before making way, in what was a baptism of fire for a first start.
Crowley has been involved in the wider Ireland squad ever since and is a name to look out for in the future.
Ciaran Frawley emerged out of the unknown as a potential successor to Sexton. In June 2022 after he started both games against the Maori All-Blacks at fly half in the summer test series against New Zealand. A usual inside-centre, his selection at 10 offers great insight into the mind of Andy Farrell.
From then, however, Frawley has been subject to a series of unfortunate injuries. An injury in September ruled Frawley out of the ‘Emerging Ireland’ tour of South Africa in what would have been an enlightening experience, leading a young squad.
Injuries got the better of Frawley back in November when he sustained a knee injury against the ‘All Black XV’ that would rule him out for months. As such, Frawley is yet to make a senior appearance for Ireland and is all-but-out of the running for the World Cup squad. However, still just 26 year of age, Frawley is in an excellent position to prove his worth over the coming months in a fight for the number 10 jersey.
At just 20-years-old, Leinster Academy’s Sam Prendergast has shown great promise for the future of Irish Rugby. Prendergast produced some wonderful skills throughout the 2023 Under 20’s Six Nations as his side secured their second grand-slam in as many years. The Kildare native lit up the field in their opener against Wales and stepped up to take crucial penalties against France to earn a narrow victory.