What is Sexton's shelf life?
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: Johnny Sexton remains Ireland’s undisputed first-choice flyhalf at the grand old age of 35, but former playmaker Tony Ward doubts he can last until the 2023 World Cup.
For Ward, as for all Irish rugby fans, the looming question is who fills the vacuum once the 2018 world player of the year finally hangs up his boots.
Sexton himself says he is not looking too far into the future – he signed a one-year extension to his contract with the Irish Rugby Football Union last week.
Billy Burns and Ross Byrne have filled in for him but neither fits the bill for Ward, who would prefer a more adventurous playmaker.
“There are more questions about No.10 than when we started out [Six Nations],” Ward told AFP this week.
“Johnny Sexton is playing very well and the Italian match [the 48-10 victory] was Ireland’s best performance because he was on for the full 80 minutes.
“There is no argument about the No.10 at the moment. I agree Sexton is first-choice but there is no number two breathing over his shoulder.”
Former flyhalf Ward, who won the inaugural European player of the year award in 1979, would like to see Sexton succeeded by a risk-taker.
Sexton’s side, who have already lost to Wales and France in the 2021 Six Nations, head to a resurgent Scotland on Sunday and Ward believes home flyhalf Finn Russell should be the model for the future.
(Continue below the video …)
Ward, who won the first of his 19 Ireland caps against Scotland in 1978, pinpoints Connacht’s Jack Carty, Leinster’s Harry Byrne (Ross’s younger brother) and Munster’s New Zealand-born Joey Carbery as possibilities.
“Those three lads are very similar and play a more risky game,” said the 66-year-old.
“Do the coaches want that? I would hope so but I would say that because I knew no different as a player.
“Gregor Townsend [Scotland head coach] was the same as me and as Scotland coach he is getting a lovely balance between risk-taking and a conservative game.
“In terms of philosophy he has picked a No.10 [Russell] in his own mould. It says as much about Gregor in trusting Russell and I would love to have that risk-taking streak here.”
Ward said, based on his own experience, it would be tough for Sexton to make the next World Cup in France.
Ward called it a day aged 32 and his last Test was a victory over Tonga at the 1987 World Cup.
“It is a big ask for him to go to the World Cup,” he said.
“He would like to think he can and I know you try and convince yourself you are still as good as you were.
“That is normal at the end of your career to think that but the truth is you are not.”
Ward, who inspired Munster to a historic win over New Zealand in 1978, believes Ireland possess players who can take risks and turn games.
“You see Louis Rees-Zammit [Wales] and Darcy Graham [Scotland] coming through who look so exciting,” said Ward.
“We have the likes of Jordan Larmour, he is our X-factor player, and is willing to try things that are different.
“Garry Ringrose I am a fan of. He is accused sometimes of meandering – well, give me a meanderer ahead of the 16-stone centres battering away.
“People use that cliche of ‘heads up rugby’, which drives me crazy. It is another term for using your common sense and seeing the moment.
“I think there should be a little more risk-taking.”