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Johnny Sexton continues to display his incredible skills at the highest level for Ireland after leading his team to a dominant victory over Japan in his 100th cap. The 36-year-old marked the occasion with a try, the 16th of his international career, along with a penalty and four conversions.
Despite his advancing years, Sexton remains the heartbeat and the foundation of the Ireland team. His importance to the side cannot be understated, even with the talented Joey Carbery waiting in the wings. Injuries have started to diminish elements of his skills, but he has improved the mental aspects of his game and his leadership on the field is second to none in the squad.
However, Ireland must have an honest conversation about whether Sexton will remain the same player in two years for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, where Andy Farrell’s men are backed at 4/1 in the rugby betting odds with Sexton in the line-up. The consensus is that Ireland are the third-best side in the Northern Hemisphere, which tends to agree with the current world rankings, although the order currently places France behind the Shamrocks.
Sexton is providing a valuable impact in the short term and will help his side compete with Les Bleus and England in the Six Nations. The fly-half was instrumental in Ireland’s comfortable 32-18 victory over England on home soil last season that was not as close as the scoreline suggested. Beyond the tournament, Farrell will have to consider whether he should turn the team over at fly-half in favour of Carbery or hand rising star Harry Byrne valuable minutes on the field. It has worked in other positions, although the coach may be concerned about wholesale changes in the ranks.
Ireland are in a strange position in terms of a transition between teams. Sexton and Conor Murray are still worthy of their places in the side, which is fantastic for Farrell to have at his disposal, but in the long term, the next generation does not appear to be hammering at the door to oust them from their roles in the backfield. After the 2019 World Cup and the departure of Joe Schmidt, Rory Best retired from the game and handed the captaincy to Sexton. The transition in the front row was a smooth one as Ronan Kelleher replaced Best at hooker and has taken to international rugby like a duck to water, excelling in the early stages of his career.
Kelleher is a prime example of a player that was ready for the rigours of playing for Ireland and stepping into the shoes of a legend. Carbery has shown glimpses of his talent in his relief of Sexton when the veteran has been sidelined due to injury, but has not delivered enough in his brief starts to prove that he can step into his shoes. Sexton will be 38 by the time of the next World Cup and Carbey will be 27. One of those players should be at the peak of their powers. However, modern-day sport has proven that players can continue to excel into their late thirties and beyond. Farrell has to judge the decision to perfection to ensure that his team are competitive in 2023.