Johnny Sexton still the king, but Andy Farrell faces huge decision
"You're always guaranteed that with Sexto. He's going to come on and make those big plays."
Warren Gatland may have deemed him surplus to the Lions' requirements, but Johnny Sexton is unquestionably Ireland's best 10 and no-one is close to his crown yet.
It has been a decade at the top for Sexton now. He made his Test debut in 2009 and traded the 10 jersey with Ronan O'Gara for a couple of years. By the end of the 2011 World Cup, though, the issue was settled. With O'Gara playing the experienced deputy, Sexton settled in as starting outhalf and has never looked back.
The peak was 2018, when Ireland beat all comers and Sexton won World Player of the Year. 2019 looked to be the trough, but Sexton bounced back from more World Cup disappointment to have a couple of excellent seasons. There have been set-backs, still, over the past two years, but the 36-year-old showed in this year's Six Nations how vital he is to the Irish cause.
On the latest House of Rugby URC episode [LISTEN from 18:40 below], Leinster and Ireland star Will Connors spoke about what Sexton brings to the team, and how he still drives standards in every aspect of the game.
Will Connors has been playing with Sexton for the past five seasons and is in awe of how the Leinster and Ireland captain keeps his foot flat to the mat.
"Ah he’s some player," he declared. "He’s in a good run of form at the moment, and you love to see it.
"Even as the captain of the club, Johnny really gets the best out of us. He’s a great leader and you can even see that in the game (when) he comes on. Even if you look back at the pre-season game against Harlequins, you see how much it means to him to be playing in these games.
"He said it before, but to be in these changing rooms with a bunch lads like that - either playing for Leinster or Ireland - it’s a privilege. You don’t know, it could be your last time putting on that jersey. You can really see him live his own words, and doing that.
"Every game he plays, his passion. Critics may say you see the bad side of it, but that, for us, is just his emotion. He really plays with his heart on his sleeve, and that’s the best thing about him."
We are just weeks away from Ireland's first three Test matches of an exciting, and challenging, season. Aside from the Six Nations, Ireland will face Argentina, Japan and have four matches against the All Blacks.
Joey Carbery was given the 10 jersey for last summer's Ireland matches against the USA and Japan. He kicked 27 points off the tee and was involved n a couple of nice tries, but he has yet to fully convince he is back to his 2016-2018 best. His goal-kicking has been poor for Munster, this season, and he has fallen off too many tackles, but he still looks the best bet to push Sexton for Ireland.
Ben Healy is making big strides, down at Munster, and his range of passing in the weekend win over Scarlets shows he is not just about that howitzer right boot. Speaking off that boot, though, he recorded Munster's first ever 50/22 kick, on Sunday, and they scored a few phases after the resulting lineout.
Billy Burns picked up a knock against Zebre and appeared to be playing through the pain barrier, against Treviso, as scrumhalf Nathan Doak looked after the goal-kicking. Jack Carty has not played for Ireland under Andy Farrell and he had a bad night off the tee, on Saturday, as Dragons did for Connacht.
Over at Leinster, Harry Byrne may well have been included for the November Test slate but he was injured after only 22 minutes of the win over Zebre. Ross Byrne has won 10 of his 13 Test appearances under Farrell but all have been off the bench and he missed out on summer Test selection.
All roads, then, lead back to Johnny Sexton.
We are back where we where ahead of the summer tour to Australia in 2018. The question, then, was whether Ireland should rest Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to give others Test starts, ahead of the 2019 World Cup. Back then - on The Hard Yards - myself and former Ireland star Kevin McLaughlin argued against it.
Our logic was - Let's keep winning games. Let's build up that winning mentality and take it to the World Cup.
In 2019, that logic proved flawed as Sexton - not 100% fit for most of the year - and Murray had form dips and Ireland were hosed by New Zealand in the World Cup quarter final.
Cast your mind forward, then, to the 2023 World Cup. Whether Ireland finish first or second in their group, they are likely to face either South Africa or New Zealand in the last eight. Sexton will be 38 by then.
He may still be our best shout for the 10 jersey too. But should Andy Farrell not use this November's Test window to see how someone like Carbery does against the Argentineans or All Blacks?
Surely we can't be left in a similar position - asking the same questions - in 2023.
If Sexton is our best bet, come that World Cup, then we are here for it. But let us learn from past mistakes and see what other lads have what it takes to step up.
WATCH THAT FULL EPISODE HERE: