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FEATURE Jack Crowley and the men who would be 10

Jack Crowley and the men who would be 10
4 months ago

Eighty. 73. 75. 76. 70. 73. 72. 80. When a big game was on the line and he was not poleaxed in a collision, those were the minutes Johnny Sexton totted up in the Ireland 10 jersey, over the past three campaigns. The only exception was the Wales game, in the 2023 Six Nations, when he came off after 68 minutes. The score, at the time Ross Byrne replaced him, was 27-10 and Liam Williams had been sin-binned.

As far back as November 2021, it was clear that Andy Farrell had seen all he needed to see. Ireland played infinitely better when Sexton was in command. There were still question marks over who would be his back-up but Joey Carbery was showing signs he could fill the role after getting over two years of injury frustrations. Carbery replaced Sexton after 64 minutes in the 29-20 win over New Zealand, that same month, and his three penalties were crucial in finishing on top. “Special word for Joey,” said Sexton. “After being out for so long, to see him come on and kick three goals. I was chuffed for him.”

The third outhalf would be either Harry Byrne or the versatile Ciarán Frawley. Both had jumped ahead of Ross Byrne, Jack Carty and Billy Burns in the queue. At the time, I observed, ‘It is going to be one hell of a gamble, but Sexton is going to be our starting 10 if we can manage the situation, and the man, in the right way. The naysayers will insist that going into a likely World Cup quarter final against either New Zealand or South Africa with an ageing, dinged-up outhalf is madness. They are not entirely wrong. That being said, this Ireland team look so much better, and more assured, when Sexton is out on the pitch.’

Two years on from that Dublin victory over the All Blacks, and a winning New Zealand Test Series in the record books, Farrell did indeed start Sexton in all five World Cup games. Carbery and Harry Byrne had not made the squad. Neither had Frawley. The back-up options were Ross Byrne, back in favour after a miraculous comeback against Australia [in 2022] and Jack Crowley, a 23-year-old from Cork with swagger that belied his years and a big role in Munster’s United Rugby Championship triumph to his name.

Jack Crowley
Jack Crowley will step into Johnny Sexton’s shoes to shape the next Ireland generation (Photo By Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

Byrne and Crowley both got minutes but Farrell was riding with Sexton until the bitter end. The 38-year-old broke Ireland’s point-scoring record during the tournament and was looking sharp. The All Blacks had four whole weeks to target that quarter-final, though, and they were superb. Were it not for the likes of Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne and Hugo Keenan, New Zealand would have run away with it. Ireland, to their credit, clung on and climbed their way back.

The final stages saw Sexton joined by sub Conor Murray, his old partner in crime, as Ireland tried to unlock the All Blacks defence. There was so much reminiscent of those 41 breathless phases, against France in the 2018 Six Nations, but Ireland needed a try this time. A drop goal would not do it. Crowley was never going to come on. This was Sexton until the death. Until it was – 37 phases, stationed in the Kiwi 22 then a Sam Whitelock poach, a penalty won. Sexton was six feet away when Wayne Barnes’ whistle shrill meant it was all over. Crowley, still in his lilac bib, bit his lip as the exhausted Irish players that started acknowledged the crowd and shook hands with the victors.

Crowley had been identified by former Ireland captain, and team manager, Donal Lenihan from a long way out. O’Gara made the offer. Crowley, seeing Carbery and Ben Healy ahead of him, fancied his chances of winning that Munster 10 jersey. He was proved right.

Three months on and Andy Farrell will have told Crowley this is now his team. They keys are ready to be handed over. Yes, you did not get a minute in that must-win game but we 100% believe in you now. Some players might take more convincing, but Crowley will take those comments and be steeled by them. This is a lad who, at 20, had an opportunity to join a La Rochelle side, led by his hero Ronan O’Gara, and play significant minutes in a team gunning for Champions Cup history.

Crowley had been identified by former Ireland captain, and team manager, Donal Lenihan from a long way out. O’Gara made the offer. Crowley, seeing Carbery and Ben Healy ahead of him, fancied his chances of winning that Munster 10 jersey. He was proved right. At 22, he was drafted in to start against Australia, at Aviva Stadium, when Sexton was a late injury withdrawal. Wearing a 10 jersey that had Sexton’s name and cap number stitched into it, Crowley did not flinch. “He’s been excellent,” Sexton observed, not long after that Wallabies win. “He didn’t give me that jersey back! It’s a good story. He’s getting his first start and he has my name on his jersey. You couldn’t write it.”

Jack Crowley
Jack Crowley appears to have seen off Ben Healy and Joey Carbery for the Munster No 10 jersey (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Heading into the 2024 Six Nations, Ross Byrne is out injured but one suspects the Leinster outhalf might only have been backing up Crowley. The succession plans for Sexton were being plotted as far back as 2015. We’ve had Jackson, Madigan, Carbery, Burns, the Byrne brothers and Carty. After all the drama and intrigue – the bright young hopes, the guys that could bring something different, injury woes, the falls from grace – we are left with a lad from Cork who gets to wear the crown. You can bet your life the French, and every side that comes next, will be keen to swat it off.

At the Six Nations launch, in Dublin, a chance to ask Farrell a couple of questions presented itself. One was about the next man in at No.10, the other was about earning a starting spot in those testing training sessions. Both were asked with Crowley in mind.

“Jack has been around for quite some time now,” said Farrell, “and he’s seen how Johnny goes about his daily life, in making sure that Jack didn’t get his place. And making sure Jack keeps on competing. On the same train of thought, Harry got to work with Johnny every single day [at Leinster].”

“Ciaran Frawley certainly is [in consideration at 10],” he added. “ That’s definite. Sam Prendergast, as well, coming to Portugal with us and having 10 days learning the ropes there – he gets to have a look at us and we get to have a look at him and see how that progresses.

Frawley and Harry Byrne have both impressed Farrell, and his coaching staff, in camps, over the past three years. It is in those training sessions, when Farrell runs these relentless, pressure-heavy bursts, that they have carried themselves well.

Hopefully how Johnny has been as a leader and, more importantly, as a world-class, once-in-a-generation 10, over the last four or five years, they have learned something from that. We want to see that they’re excited about taking that challenge on, and saying, ‘I’m going to make that my position’.  We are going to find out a lot about people’s character – those three players – in the coming weeks, that’s for sure.”

Frawley and Harry Byrne have both impressed Farrell, and his coaching staff, in camps, over the past three years. It is in those training sessions, when Farrell runs these relentless, pressure-heavy bursts, that they have carried themselves well. What many Leinster and Ireland fans have seen in swatches, Farrell has observed in camp. He is perhaps more convinced than many, but he has been proved right with Hansen, Keenan and hookers, Dan Sheehan and Rónan Kelleher.

Ciaran Frawley
Ciaran Frawley has impressed Andy Farrell and will battle it out with Harry Byrne for a bench spot in this Six Nations (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“It certainly is,” Farrell replied, when asked if many of his big decisions are made on the training pitch. “That’s how it should be. The best thing you can do for the squad, as a coach, is stay open-minded. If you are fixed on anything, then people tend to get down-hearted or too comfortable, for that matter. When you come into international camp, the pressure they put on each other is the main thing because, ultimately, what you are trying to do as a professional is get the respect of your peers.

“For those three 10s that you were talking about before, you’ve to be open-minded enough to deal with preparation, grabbing hold of it and taking responsibility for their role within the team – No. 10 for the Ireland squad. That’s got to be there for everyone to see, in the squad. So how they deal with that is pretty important.”

Ahead of that World Cup quarter final, former All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg observed, “Without Johnny Sexton, Ireland have got nothing. Well, they have something but he is their team. He is their important person in that squad.”

In Paris, Ireland went the full 80 with Sexton but still fell short. In Marseille, it is finally time, with no looking back, for the next man up to show those beyond the inner circle that he is ready to make this team his.

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