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23rd Feb 2023

Andy Farrell names six candidates to replace Johnny Sexton as Ireland captain

Patrick McCarry

Andy Farrell

“We’d be more than happy for a handful of players to captain the side. James is the lucky one to be able to do it, this weekend.”

Such has been the strength of Ireland’s start to the 2023 Six Nations that Andy Farrell indulged in more changes than he usually might for a trip to Italy. The Italians have tested Ireland on a few occasions, over the years, but it has been 10 years since they pulled the wool over them.

Ireland flew out to Rome this afternoon with captain James Ryan leading his teammates for the trip, and regular captain Johnny Sexton tagging along for the ride.

While some quarters may question why as many as six changes were made from the side that beat Wales and France, and argue that so many tweaks could be a sign of complacency, Andy Farrell attempted to quell that sentiment at his press briefing before the squad flew out of Dublin Airport. Looking at the starting XV, there are four returning players – Rónan Kelleher, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan and Bundee Aki – that all toured with the Lions in 2021.

The only selections that could be deemed somewhat risky, in the Test environment, are Craig Casey and Ross Byrne as starting half-backs. Farrell insisted that both men had ‘earned their chance’ to run the Irish team at Stadio Olimpico.

Among the senior stars missing or rested were Tadhg Furlong, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony. All three men have captained Ireland so that left James Ryan as the leading candidate to captain Ireland. Garry Ringrose was another option and Farrell name-checked him, and three others, when discussing players that could eventually lead Ireland after Sexton retires.

Andy FarrellIreland head coach Andy Farrell during a media conference at the Radisson Dublin Airport Hotel. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Andy Farrell on Ireland’s leadership group

With Johnny Sexton [groin] rested and Peter O’Mahony on the replacements bench, it was left to Andy Farrell choosing between James Ryan and Garry Ringrose to captain Ireland against Italy.

Farrell opted for Ryan, who has captained Ireland on a few occasions and finished out the win over France as captain, over Ringrose. The Leinster centre has been captaining his province in more and more games, since 2020, but Farrell may want someone in his pack doing the talking with the referee.

“I’ve seen James grow massively as a leader, because of the leaders he has got around him. I’ve seen all of them grow, in a huge way, over the years and James just happens to be one of those leaders that will put his hand up, week-in and week-out, and lead from the front in how he performs on the field. He’s got massive respect in that regard but his leadership off the field has been very good, as well.”

In highlighting the strength of the squad’s leadership group, Andy Farrell name-checked James Ryan along with three other players that could take up the captaincy mantle when Sexton retires from international duty, after the World Cup. Farrell said:

“We’d be more than happy for a handful of players to captain the side. James is the lucky one to be able to do it, this weekend. But Garry Ringrose is an exceptional leader. I’m sure that he will be the captain of Ireland, one day.

Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, and more and more of those players. You look at the development of players like Caelan Doris or Hugo Keenan. There’s a reason why they’re playing so well – they don’t just lead themselves, off the field, they lead others. There’s a rhythm to those sort of players we talk about.”

Farrell believes, then, that Ireland are lucky to have so many driving forces and icons in the squad.

Sexton will be dearly missed, when he does call it a day, but Ireland are not clinging to the Leinster talisman as much as they may have done in the past.

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