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Sexton shadow hangs over Irish title defence

SPOTLIGHT: Ireland’s hopes of successfully defending their Six Nations title hinge on filling the “massive gap” left by Johnny Sexton’s decision to retire after their World Cup quarterfinal loss to New Zealand, former Irish fullback Hugo MacNeill told AFP.

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Sexton’s retirement left head coach Andy Farrell needing to name a new captain and find a flyhalf who MacNeill says can “take a game by the scruff of the neck”.

“There is huge pressure due to the massive gap Johnny Sexton left,” said MacNeill.

“I cannot think of another Ireland player who retired – with all due respect to Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell – who both directed and led the game leaving such huge gaps to fill.”

The 37-times capped MacNeill – a member of the 1982 and 1985 Triple Crown-winning teams – believes Farrell got the first call right in appointing veteran Peter O’Mahony skipper.

The 34-year-old flank is seen as a stopgap but with probably the toughest Test up first away to France on Friday, and the psychological scars healing from the heartbreaking 28-24 defeat to the All Blacks in the World Cup, MacNeill says O’Mahony is the perfect fit.

The 101-times capped O’Mahony has already captained Ireland 10 times while the younger James Ryan has been widely seen as the man being groomed for the role.

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However, the lock’s fitness and form were not at their best in the World Cup.

“Andy Farrell had to replace Sexton as flyhalf which, with the best will in the world, none of the options are in the same league, and find an equally inspirational captain,” said MacNeill.

“The Irish team is a really good side but a group of leaders has not emerged yet. Only Peter O’Mahony had shown that quality.

“He opted not to take a risk and named someone who is a proven leader and at the end of his career not the start of it.

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“O’Mahony is very well respected, a fine player and is a leader.”

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‘The one that got away’

More problematic is who seizes the No.10 shirt that Sexton wore for over 10 years, seeing off potential rivals like Joey Carbery.

Whereas Sexton proved he was the natural successor to Ronan O’Gara there is no-one, according to MacNeill, who fits the bill this time round.

Farrell has named three in the squad.

Leinster’s 20-year-old Sam Prendergast has been taken to their training camp in Portugal but more for the experience.

Jack Crowley, who performed well in cameo appearances at the World Cup, edging ahead of the more experienced Ross Byrne, appears to be the favourite to start against the French.

“If anyone knows who the No 10 will be then they are smarter than you or I,” said 65-year-old MacNeill.

“Johnny Sexton’s shadow is very much hanging over them. He is not a threat but he is very much there, not by his own volition as the last thing he would want is to put pressure on them.

“However, until somebody demonstrates otherwise the flyhalf position will be an issue.

“Great players show up in big moments in big games. Am I completely confident one of them can take the game by the scruff of the neck in the next few weeks? I am not sure.”

MacNeill echoes Farrell when he says it is time to move on from “the one that got away”.

“Ireland as a rugby nation needs to finally get the shattering World Cup defeat out of their system,” he said.

“We can do that by winning the title but the question is if we find a fly-half with the ability to lead and direct this team.

“If one emerges then we have a good chance; if one does not I cannot really see it.”

 

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