Ireland in Search of captain and talisman….

Given that Sexton has ended his stellar career, whomever takes over as captain will have massive shoes to fill.

99 men have held the captaincy of Ireland’s rugby team. When Andy Farrell’s team returns to the Six Nations the following year, the question is whether there will be a hundredth player to hold the title, or if the head coach will instead turn to one of the four surviving players who previously held the position.

Ten years ago, against Italy, Peter O’Mahony took the captain’s helm for the first time. Since then, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, and Tadhg Furlong have continued in their steps.

Now that Johnny Sexton has ended his illustrious career, whoever succeeds him or her will have large shoes to fill.

When Rory Best stepped down from the job permanently after the squad’s return from the Far East four years ago, the 38-year-old wasn’t viewed as an ideal alternative, and he was asked to lead the team out for the first time against Russia at the 2019 World Cup.

Sexton’s work ethic and high standards were already well-known, but some people were concerned about his intense drive to succeed at any costs.

Was he too ambitious and stern? Did he lack the requisite diplomacy?

His age also played a role. Sexton was 34 at the time, so the idea that he may play at another World Cup seemed absurd. The British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in 2021, which was his stated ambition at the time, appeared ambitious.

When Warren Gatland decided not to select him for that, he focused on this year’s World Cup. Despite the fact that Ireland was unable to advance past the traditional dead end of a quarterfinal, Sexton’s performances and leadership were, for the most part, outstanding.

A change will be in the air come 2024 with many vacancies to fill as he is joined in retirement by Keith Earls, another veteran whose contribution and presence off the field was equally valued by teammates and coaches.

“Johnny and Earlsy have been able to show the younger lads the qualities that are required to be a top, top-class player,” claimed Henderson.

The lessons those players will gain will undoubtedly provide a solid basis for the Irish teams of the future.

I hate to say it, but the boys in their early 20s were born in the 2000s. Joe McCarthy and Jack Crowley both have important events coming up, so perhaps they’ll build on last Saturday’s performance to be ready to deliver on the big stage in the future.

Since quite some time, Ireland has been conducting business with a hierarchical chain of command. Sport-related leadership groups are all the rage, and O’Mahony has been a part of theirs for a while.

Garry Ringrose, Ryan, Henderson, and Furlong. More recently, Hugo Keenan and Caelan Doris were added to that collective to further prepare the upcoming officer class.

If O’Mahony’s remarks following the weekend’s loss to the All Blacks are any indication, his own career may be coming to an end. Henderson is 31 years old, which is not very old for a lock, but is his position in the team guaranteed?

James Ryan was replaced by the Ulsterman on the team during the competition, which casts doubt on Ryan in this argument as well. Given his age and position on the squad, Doris may fit the majority of the criteria as Furlong, Ringrose, and Keenan don’t seem like obvious options.

It doesn’t reflect poorly on any of them that Sexton brought more star power than anyone else. In reality, his exit from the stage leaves Ireland’s ranks without a legitimate “name” for the first time in more than a generation. No O’Connell, O’Gara, or O’Driscoll.

Is that relevant? It’s not like the squad lacks any top-notch players. Not at all. In that regard, it might even be more of a concern for the media and the IRFU’s marketing division, meaning that much of what they have created collectively will endure.

Many players, including Sexton, Henderson, O’Mahony, and Jack Conan, have said that this was the most joyful rugby experience of their careers, but the way it ended will always make them uncomfortable.

Henderson discussed his prior quarterfinal exits in 2015 and 2019 last week, explaining why he was completely confident that this time would be different and that this team was different. After the game, he claimed that it had changed, although not in a significant way.

“It feels different than it did in ’19. In 2019, we suffered a heavy loss, but on Saturday, we were competitive all the way through.

“A few things didn’t go our way that maybe we felt should have,” said the speaker. “But that’s professional sport, and that’s what you have to live with.”

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