the general

After ROG v Humphreys and Sexton v O'Gara, Ireland's next out-half is not a straight choice

Nothing is certain yet about who will be Ireland’s next first-choice out-half.

FOR THE FIRST time in almost three decades, the Ireland 10 jersey belongs to no-one.

Collage Maker-31-Oct-2023-03-36-PM-5077 David Humphreys, Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton.

Johnny Sexton’s final international game in the World Cup wasn’t just the end of an absorbing career in rugby. It was also the start of a period of uncertainty around the out-half position.

Who will be Ireland’s next general? Well, we’re not sure yet. There are certainly candidates for the vacancy, but nobody has put forward a convincing case to be Sexton’s successor.

We’re not familiar with this situation. We’re used to seeing one player jump from the pack to wrap his fingers around the shirt and yank it away from all others. Including the existing out-half.

Ronan O’Gara usurped David Humphreys. And was then usurped by Sexton. Both cases carried an air of inevitability about them as the emerging stars prevailed over time. The odds tend to favour the younger pups when older heads are going into decline. But there was still a fight for the jersey that drove both parties on and forced them to elevate. Each would have been lesser without the other raising the stakes.

Envy, paranoia, resentment and fear of being unworthy — the best out-halves of modern Irish rugby have been bred from this.

It goes back even further to the war between Tony Ward and Ollie Campbell for 10 supremacy. Their hostilities reached the front page of the Evening Press in May 1979 when Campbell was picked to start ahead of Ward for the clash of Ireland and Australia in Brisbane.

There was an edge to the battles too. Serrated edges.

In his autobiography, O’Gara reveals that he threatened to quit the Irish squad when the then-Ireland manager Eddie O’Sullivan sent Humphreys on to replace him a few minutes after half-time in a 2005 Autumn international against Australia.

“I don’t intend hanging around for that,” a furious O’Gara told O’Sullivan in the presence of Humphreys. “I’ll gladly go home and play for Munster and be happy with the rest of my career. I’ve had enough of it. I’m not enjoying it.”

In spite of their on-pitch conflict, O’Gara and Humphreys were quite friendly away from the battle field. They would often request to be roomed together while on international duty.

And when Humphreys retired in 2006, the path was free and clear for O’Gara to settle in as Ireland’s first choice commander.

gordon-darcy-celebrates-his-try-with-shane-horgan-and-luke-fitzgerald Sexton and O'Gara during that infamous incident in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The image of Sexton taunting O’Gara after Leinster scored a try against Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final marks another important plot point in Ireland’s history of out-half rivalries. Towering over O’Gara in his provincial garb, Sexton’s had the expression of a predator cornering his next victim. His message to the sunken man in red was clear that day: I’m the future.

Under then Ireland manager Declan Kidney, the dial switched over and back between the two until O’Gara’s retirement in 2013. By that stage, Sexton had already banked roughly four years of regular inclusion in the Ireland team, beginning with his debut against Fiji in 2009 before making his first Six Nations start the following year.

The divisions between them were stark. In the brilliant documentary ‘ROG,’ O’Gara admitted that he “didn’t want to get to know him” when Sexton first appeared as a contender for his crown. This carried on until the air thawed during their time at Racing 92.

O’Gara experienced both sides of this coin throughout his career, but Sexton remained unconquered right up to the end. At 38. It’s a feat that he managed that, particularly considering the multitude of injuries that he has clocked up in his time.

But it is perhaps also an indictment of the lack of competition for him. Nobody really came close to stealing his crown. Moreover, none of his potential replacements have built up the level of big-day match experience that he had before he became Ireland’s number one call at 10. That’s a concern going forward.

Jack Crowley — Sexton’s understudy at the World Cup — has just nine caps and three Test starts. Ross Byrne was probably considered by most to be Sexton’s heir apparent but seems to have been overtaken by Crowley. Joey Carbery is the most experienced of the contenders for the position, but injuries have stunted his rise.

Sam Prendergast was the star of the Ireland U20′s back-to-back Grand Slam success, but he may need more time before he’s ready for Big School.

Whatever way we slice it, the next in line will be stepping into the position slightly undercooked and unproven compared to the previous occupants of the shirt.

The hope is that it will go to a good home but nothing is certain yet about Ireland’s next general.

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