Memorable rugby media conferences are few and far between in Ireland but what took place before noon on Thursday, November 5, will go down in the annals as a good ‘un, a snappy virtual session where Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton separately attempted to make the week’s very uncomfortable running controversy finally go away.  

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So much has been said about the combustible reaction of Sexton to getting substituted at the Stade de France that the fact Ireland were too easily beaten in a title-deciding Six Nations match last Saturday has nearly been forgotten about in the rush to judge the tempestuous actions of the No10.

Farrell was first up, insisting he hadn’t been undermined by the angry, withering look cast in his direction in Paris after he hooked the talisman whose underwhelming evening hadn’t turned out the way he had hoped.  

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Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell tackle the fallout from that infamous substitution in Paris

Five Sexton-esque questions in total the coach batted away before getting on with more mundane items such as explaining his 34-man squad for the Autumn Nations Cup, the new-fangled tournament that kicks off in Dublin against Wales on November 13. 

The seat then vacated, Sexton came to the stage to cleanse his soul and hopefully draw to line a line under the unsavoury matter he never realised would be blown up into something so huge. 

He had chippily dismissed the ‘reaction’ issue as nothing to see here during Saturday night’s post-title loss requiem. However, when you have bulwarks of the Irish game such as former skippers Brian O’Driscoll and Keith Wood claiming what had happened after the substitution had taken place wasn’t a good look, a re-evaluation was always going to be needed to help clear the lingering stinky smell. 

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And yet, even after he admitted he had apologised to Farrell, that he shouldn’t have reacted the way he did, there was still chutzpah to Sexton’s expression, some answers to questions coming via gritted teeth. “I have apologised to the people that matter but I’m not going to sit here and sort of apologise to the whole world,” he insisted. “It was a split-second thing, a split-second decision I wish I didn’t make but I did.”

Thing is, contrition or no contrition, this is unlikely to be the last we will hear of this controversy. Written in block capitals alongside Sexton’s name on the 34-man Nations Cup squad released by the IRFU was the word CAPTAIN. 

It’s an Ireland responsibility Sexton apparently treasures. “I love being captain,” he added later on in his piece on Thursday. “It’s a huge honour. When Andy asked me to it, it was one of the biggest honours in my career, the biggest probably, and I’m incredibly proud to do it. I’m trying to get better in the role.”

But there’s the rub, though. Time simply waits for no man in this game and someone who is 35 years of age and has 99 caps in the bank for his country and the Lions shouldn’t be striving to get better in the role. He should automatically be far better able to disguise a fit of pique, rather than have his reputation so badly tarnished by a schoolboy-like tantrum. 

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When the time does come for Farrell to relieve Sexton of the captaincy ahead of the 2021 Six Nations, the veteran out-half would be best served not throwing his toys and instead remembering what he wrote in his own book seven years ago about his reaction to the legendary O’Driscoll losing the Ireland captaincy to Jamie Heaslip. 

“There was a lot of negative reaction to the news, about how this was a terrible way to treat Ireland’s greatest ever player. I agree that he is our greatest player but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Jamie had done well in November and it was the right thing to do at this stage of the team’s development,” wrote Sexton in the January 16 entry to his diary-style 2013 publication, Becoming a Lion.  

“Why keep him in charge when he is not going to be around for the next World Cup? This will allow him to concentrate on his own game, and Brian the player is more important than Brian the captain. I understand the captaincy was a big part of his life and that he is disappointed, but it’s not as though he’s going to go into his shell. He’s not that type of bloke. He’ll still be a leader and I’m sure he’ll help Jamie.”

Ditto should apply now, that Johnny the player is more important than Johnny the captain and the bigger picture must be forensically looked at. Sexton will be 38 when France 2023 gets going, the tournament that will define the Farrell era. Best then to pass the captaincy baton over this winter to someone such as James Ryan and be done with it.

Sexton’s appointment was a nod to Ireland’s past under Joe Schmidt, not a reliable long-term foundation for the future under Farrell who has enough headaches to be dealing with without having to defend his naughty skipper in public. Thursday may have been a virtual show of unity but this story won’t be going away anytime quickly.   

    

  

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