As a relatively fresh group of out-halves step up to the plate, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is confident that the defending Guinness Six Nations champions can ‘keep improving as a team’.
Jonathan Sexton dominated the number 10 jersey for a number of years, being at the helm for some of Irish Rugby’s greatest days, and his retirement post-Rugby World Cup has opened the door for a successor to emerge in this pivotal position.
Ireland’s selected Six Nations squad includes three out-half contenders, Jack Crowley, Harry Byrne and Ciaran Frawley, while Leinster’s Sam Prendergast has also been brought into camp as a training panellist.
Crowley, who turned 24 earlier this month, has the most international experience of the trio, boosting his Ireland caps tally to nine with three appearances off the bench during the World Cup.
The talented Munster play-maker started the November 2022 win over Australia, following up with his Six Nations debut as a replacement during the closing stages against Italy last February. He had 80-minute run-outs against both Italy and Samoa before the World Cup.
Like Crowley, the multi-skilled Frawley was part of the Emerging Ireland squad that played in the Toyota Challenge in South Africa in 2022. A few months prior to that, the Skerries man (26) toured New Zealand with the Ireland squad, starting both games against the Māori All Blacks.
Known for his versatility, he has lined out at full-back, out-half and inside centre for Leinster this season. His Ireland experience has included a start at number 10 for Ireland ‘A’ against the All Blacks XV, and he made his Test debut as a half-time replacement against Italy last August.
The younger of Leinster’s Byrne brothers, Harry has two Ireland caps to his name having made cameo appearances against the USA and Argentina in 2021. He was part of the Ireland squad that visited New Zealand the following summer, but a hamstring injury cut his tour short.
The 24-year-old, a classy operator since his Ireland Under-20 days, has had seven starts at out-half for Leinster so far this season. He returned from an ankle injury to help them overcome Leicester Tigers 27-10 last Saturday.
Frawley donned the number 10 jersey the previous week against Stade Francais at the Aviva Stadium, while Crowley has made nine starts for Munster to date during the 2023/24 campaign.
Asked about his options regarding Sexton’s replacement, Farrell said: “The lads that are in the squad, the three of them, and obviously Sam Prendergast is coming along with us for 10 days into the training camp before the first game.
Those lads have learnt off the best, they’ve been around Johnny over the last four or five years. A couple of them were at the same province as him.
“I know that Jack Crowley has been like a sponge with him over the last few years anyway. So, his legacy will be passed down, I have no doubt about that.
“Look, it’s obviously going to be difficult to replace a one-in-a-generation type player. But all good things come to an end, Johnny’s started a new career and we’ve got to make sure that we keep improving as a team.
“I’m sure he’ll be Ireland’s biggest number one fan on Friday week when we play France in Marseille.”
Competition for places is certainly ratcheting up with the Ireland squad switching training bases this week to Quinta do Lago in Portugal, making sure they are in prime condition to take on France in a mouth-watering Six Nations opener.
The Grand Slam success from last spring is far from Farrell’s mind as he focuses on a tough first round encounter, but he knows the capabilities of his squad, which is led by newly-appointed captain Peter O’Mahony and includes twelve players with 15 or less caps.
“I suppose you tend to forget about that (being defending champions) because it’s about preparation from here on in,” said the Wigan man, speaking at the Six Nations launch in the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.
“I don’t think many people care if you’ve had six months’ preparation or five training sessions, which we’ve got leading into the game on Friday week.
“It’s all about how we get across our work, get down to business again and making sure that we build on the belief and confidence that we’ve had in the past.”
He added: “I think what we’ve done over the last couple of years is blood a lot of new players, not just young (players), new ones who have got a cap or two under their belt.
“We’ve also got a few that’s under ten caps, so we’ve a bit of growing there to do ourselves. We do that through the experience that we’ve gained together over the last four years, and that’s how we keep on growing.”
O’Mahony was also at the Six Nations launch, and Farrell described the Corkman as ‘a born leader and a natural fit for us’ in terms of his captaincy pedigree. He was already an established member of Ireland’s leadership group and an influential figure both on and off the pitch.
“Well, just being himself is good,” Farrell said of the new captain. “There’s some people that just make a room feel good just by being there, just by being themselves.
“I think that’s what needs to happen, to be authentic, to make sure that you’re being yourself and not somebody that you’re not. Some people have just got that, and Peter’s certainly one of them.”
Both men are looking forward to locking horns with France again. Last February’s duel at the Aviva Stadium, which saw Garry Ringrose’s brilliantly-finished try seal a 32-19 bonus point win for the hosts, was undoubtedly one of the games of the year.
France had beaten Ireland the last three times they had played each other, and that defeat in Dublin ended les Bleus’ 14-match winning streak. Farrell was defence coach when Sexton’s unforgettable drop goal decided the teams’ 2018 meeting in Paris.
That was also a first round fixture and the catalyst for Grand Slam glory that season, so there is a huge amount riding on next week’s result as both sides – the respective Grand Slam champions of 2022 and 2023 – aim for a momentum-building performance in Marseille.
“It being a home game (last year) we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make sure that we delivered. From what I remember, it was an outstanding game. France are a fantastic team, how they’ve grown over the last four years,” acknowledged Farrell.
“The type of personnel that they’ve got and the type of game that they play, it’s fantastic to see. We were lucky enough to get over the line against them last year.
“First up on a Friday night in Marseille, it concentrates the mind as far as our preparation is concerned and we’ll look forward to seeing how we deal with that.
“With the Irish fans travelling and connecting like we know that they will, it’s going to be an exciting place to be, let’s put it that way.”