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No Rory Best but Schmidt's options can allow Ireland to make strong start

Johnny Sexton is the favourite to take over the captaincy for the first Test against the Wallabies.

Murray Kinsella reports from Surfers Paradise

THE LAST TIME Ireland played without Rory Best as their hooker and captain, they scraped past Fiji on a 23-20 scoreline.

The Ulsterman has been a superb leader for Joe Schmidt’s side since he was voted into the role by his team-mates ahead of the 2016 Six Nations.

Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell Schmidt will name his Ireland team on Thursday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That championship didn’t go ideally for Ireland but Best’s record as captain since is impressive, including leading Schmidt’s team to a first-ever win against the Springboks on South African soil, a maiden victory over the All Blacks, and a Grand Slam.

The 35-year-old is absent from the tour of Australia, however, meaning that Schmidt will name a new captain and starting hooker when he announces his team for the first Test on Thursday.

In terms of the captaincy, next in line is either Johnny Sexton or Peter O’Mahony, with the Leinster out-half the favourite, despite not having been named as Ireland captain before.

Schmidt indicated last week that Sexton and O’Mahony would share the captaincy on this tour, and whichever of them is named for Saturday’s first clash with the Wallabies in Brisbane will be backed up by a strong leadership group.

CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Keith Earls are the other members of that group along with Sexton, O’Mahony and Best, and Ireland are confident that the loss of Best won’t be too keenly felt.

“The good thing in our environment is that there is always a bit of a shared leadership,” said assistant coach Greg Feek yesterday. “Rory is the captain and he always says the right thing at the right time. That’s good but other guys can step up.

“There’s some guys there who know what’s going on. They’re probably the main things, but we know what Johnny, Pete, CJ and Earlsy and those guys are like.

“Whoever comes in, the boys will just get on with it. The direction of how we go about things, the leaders have always driven those values pretty hard anyway.

Johnny Sexton during training Sexton could captain Ireland this weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think it’s actually not a bad thing, looking at it positively. Besty’s a good man, he does a good job, but you always try to look at things with a positive point of view.”

As such a major influence on the group and with his form so excellent, Sexton would make sense as the captain for this first Test, although O’Mahony has vast experience in the role with Munster and even captained the Lions against the All Blacks last year.

The fact that Ireland didn’t officially announce a new captain after Best dropped out of the tour suggests that Sexton and O’Mahony may not actually be in the same starting teams as each other for all three Tests, allowing them both to take on the leadership at different points in the next three weeks.

The sense on the ground in Australia is that Sexton will lead Ireland into the first Test, potentially continuing his halfback partnership with Conor Murray as Schmidt looks for a strong start to the series.

While that proven pairing would provide a strong steering influence for Ireland, Schmidt may be tempted to mix things up in the rest of his starting team.

Dan Leavy has been carrying a niggle this week, which could open the door for Jordi Murphy to come into the back row, while Jack Conan has been pushing for selection and Schmidt may be tempted to hand Tadhg Beirne a debut.

Best’s absence at hooker means one of Sean Cronin, Rob Herring and Niall Scannell will start, with the Leinster man’s form making him the favourite.

The vast majority of Cronin’s 61 caps have come off the bench but with Best ruled out, his time to shine may come this weekend.

“He’s had a massive season, some huge games,” said Feek of Cronin. “We know what Sean can offer.”

Sean Cronin during training Cronin is the favourite to start at hooker. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Cronin’s familiarity with propping pair Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong is another positive, although Feek refused to rule out Scannell and Herring in the number two shirt.

“We’ve got the three there,” said Feek. “Sean’s done really well, he’s been pretty successful over the last couple of months. Rob Herring has really stood up for Ulster as well and Niall is there.

“Hooker-wise, we’re reasonably happy with what we have.”

Rob Kearney is expected to be at fullback for Ireland again this weekend, while Jordan Larmour’s form has pushed him into contention for one of the wing spots, although Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale have been superb out wide for Schmidt’s team this season.

Whatever way the selection goes for this weekend, the Grand Slam champions can make life a lot more comfortable for themselves by notching a victory in the opening Test of the series.

“We’ve got to look at what’s happened over the last four months and start again to try to create something new,” said Feek.

“That comes week by week, keep fighting for it and keep fighting for performances that would merit that.

“A lot of things around starting and that first action we do is going to be a big thing this week. Everyone’s first action will be a standard for us.”

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Murray Kinsella

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