How Ireland can cure their World Cup hangover and fill the Johnny Sexton void
The hangover has lasted for four months, with broken images of those Parisian nights coming back in their heads still aching with the hazy memories of a golden opportunity lost.
For France and Ireland, the stories of the harvest were surprisingly similar, so close; so far – two World Cup events set up for success ended prematurely by one score. A kick of a ball, a flip of coins, a well-timed Cheslin Kolbe or a jackal Sam Whitelock: for the third men’s World Cup in a row, France and Ireland spent the last fortnight as spectators.
These two were the sides that marked the final cycle of the World Cup, carefully building a rival in the hope of ending their championship hoodoo. France coach Fabien Galthie and his Irish counterpart Andy Farrell identified areas that needed improvement and improved them, bringing through key personnel and developing depth. They entered, and left, the World Cup with very few obvious weaknesses; either would be a worthy winner.
Both came up short. “Four years of steady progress, the only goal was to be world champion,” Galthie said late last year. “There is no one point, but everything is one point. We will be tired for life and that will be part of our journey.”
And now it’s time to pick up the pieces and start again with a new challenge. It feels fitting that these two will be hitting the opposite button on men’s international rugby with the first full-fledged match since the World Cup ended, and the opening match of the Six Nations could still be the deciding game this year.
This game of grand-slam champions will feel something new. In part, that is due to a new amphitheater, as the upcoming Olympics in the French capital will have to move south from the Stade de France; Marseille’s Stade Velodrome is a spectacular sporting cathedral and a fitting platform.
But the sense of the nouveau is best marked in the gaps left by those who are no longer here. Johnny Sexton and Antoine Dupont were the faces of their countries, primitive for the projects they started and the rugby philosophies around which these two sculptures were carved.
Sexton has been at the heart of this Ireland for a long time, both its backbone and its brain. Careful management allowed Farrell to extract the last drops of an old vineyard, but in doing so he may have stunted the progress of his successor. The emergence of Jack Crowley, then, is well-timed, the Munsterman kicked his province to United Rugby Championship victory last season and is now ready for his international opportunity.
“I think it has to happen organically; he’s got to be realistic,” Crowley said of how he’ll cope with Sexton being gone. “For me, he’s been trying to learn so much from Johnny over the last couple of years and get in more I can. I need to grow and understand myself and my game and how I can impact this organization.”
Peter O’Mahony’s promotion to captain should ensure a stable, disciplined boat. The blind side is still one of Ireland’s best at the age of 34, although the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) are notably reluctant to give their new Munster captain a modest contract. put in contact with O’Mahony for an update. The side have insisted they are fully focused on this campaign but the kind of club/country tension that has been avoided in the last cycle threatens to bubble at the back.
That is also true of France, where the alignment achieved in preparation for the World Cup at home seems to have been somewhat restored. The top 14 clubs were generous in providing their players ahead of that tournament, but a complex system has been sorted out for this campaign which sees many more fringe squad members, which apparently would not suit anyone. .
Dupont will be back after the Olympics but his departure to the sevens round leaves even this formidable French side searching for a new nucleus around which their free-spirits can revolve. His running mate Romain Ntamack is still out, too, so Fabien Galthie is fortunate to be able to count on a pair of clubs in red-hot form. Maxime Lucu and Matthieu Jalibert will be joined by fellow Bordeaux-Begles Yoram Moefana, Louis Bielle-Biarrey and Damian Penaud in the France 23 with no team playing better attacking rugby in Europe this season.
The pieces elsewhere are, for the most part, still the same for France, although it is a shame that the kaiju Emmanuel Meafou has to wait for an international arrival due to injury. Galthie can at least call on Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifenua, who were suspended from international duty after the World Cup, to compensate.
The fact that both coaches have selected six forwards on the bench speaks to the prospect of another strong battle. The Stade de France is far from state, but when France visited Marseille in the autumn of 2022 to face South Africa, the atmosphere was ferocious, and Friday night’s lights should make a real impression. to this opening game. There are plenty of courses to be served in these Six Nations but this is not your traditional food.
“We all know it’s going to be a war of attrition,” Farrell said Wednesday when he announced his squad. “It’s mouth-watering, isn’t it? The stadium, the atmosphere, because it’s the first Six Nations match after the World Cup, if you’re not excited about that, you’re in the wrong place.
“For us, it just lives up to our expectations, we expect to play on the big stage and it really doesn’t get any bigger than this one. We have to enjoy these events and chase them.”