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CHRIS FOY: New Irish ‘quarterback’ fills Johnny Sexton’s boots, England still need explosive Manu Tuilagi… PLUS, my Six Nations Team of the Week

  • Jack Crowley has not looked fazed by the task of replacing Johnny Sexton 
  • Sexton was hailed as Ireland’s greatest player of all time by coach Andy Farrell
  • Manu Tuilagi will be recalled by England as soon as he has recovered from injury

It wasn’t just the young anthem singer who overcame big-match nerves to deliver a majestic performance in Dublin on Sunday. Jack Crowley, take a bow.

Andy Farrell was visibly moved by the impressive showmanship of eight-year-old Stevie Mulrooney, who led a rousing rendition of ‘Ireland’s Call’ with the authority of a seasoned soprano. 

But a couple of hours later, the Irish head coach had cause to savour the artistic flair of someone three times the boy’s age, who faced an even more daunting assignment.

It was Crowley’s first Six Nations appearance at home and he seized the conductor’s baton with aplomb, in the 36-0 demolition of Italy – despite the burden of inheriting it from Johnny Sexton.

In the Netflix ‘Full Contact’ series about the 2023 championship, released last month, Farrell is shown in the aftermath of his side’s Grand Slam triumph acclaiming Sexton as his country’s greatest player of all time.

Jack Crowley has not looked fazed by the magnitude of the task of replacing Johnny Sexton

Jack Crowley has not looked fazed by the magnitude of the task of replacing Johnny Sexton

So good luck, Jack. What an act to follow. But he has started superbly. He has not looked fazed by the magnitude of his role and his task. As a global audience fixated on the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, Irish viewers could enjoy the spectacle knowing they have witnessed the emergence of another pedigree ‘quarterback’ in their own national team.

A few errors didn’t bother him, as was the case in Marseille nine days earlier. Crowley even scored a first senior try and exuded sheer joy as he did so, having created the opening with deft handling in close range of opposition defenders. That became a theme. He threatened the line repeatedly. He took risks, took the hits and kept coming, kept probing, kept off-loading, kept threatening.

Sexton gradually usurped Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s chosen ‘out-half’ and went on to be a decorated Lion and Slam-winning national hero. But he didn’t make his international debut until the age of 24 years, four months. That was against Fiji – who were also the opposition for Crowley’s first Test appearance, two months short of his 23rd birthday. So, he is already ahead on the career graph; now he just has to demonstrate the same fierce competitive streak and remarkable longevity.

As a Munster player, who grew up near Cork, he does not have the benefit of being part of Ireland’s large, cohesive Leinster core. So, he has more to do to fully integrate, but that doesn’t seem to be a causing him a problem. Crowley can become a poster-boy for his province’s resurgence and for the next phase of his national team’s golden age.

Ireland are relentless. Well, nearly. They have won 17 home Tests in a row and 19 of their last 20 matches anywhere. On Sunday, they ‘nilled’ a championship rival for the first time since 1987. They are on course to become the first team in the Six Nations era to win back-to-back Grand Slams. Their consistent dominance is reaching the heights of the finest All Black sides of the pro era.

But… the World Cup was their target and they didn’t even reach the last four. That quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Paris will haunt them. While a European clean-sweep would have a certain healing quality, it might also heighten the regrets. This is a super-team lacking the super-prize. Until they claim it, they cannot expect to join England’s heroes of 2000-2003 in the pantheon of northern-hemisphere rugby.

Johnny Sexton was hailed as Ireland's greatest player of all time by coach Andy Farrell

Johnny Sexton was hailed as Ireland’s greatest player of all time by coach Andy Farrell

Another Slam would push this new, Sexton-less Ireland team into oval-ball folklore but the World Cup curse will eat away at them and their passionate public until it is rectified, and that can’t happen until 2027 at the earliest. In the mean-time, they can focus their energy on finishing what they have started in this Six Nations and then going to South Africa, for a mini-series – frustratingly, just two Tests – which will pit the likely champions of Europe against the champions of the world.

That will be another milestone in Crowley’s burgeoning career. The Boks will come after him and the pressure will be on. But he seems at ease with those ‘trappings’ of the job. He has awaited his chance and he is taking it. Ireland feared life after Sexton, but their new quarterback looks the part.

England still need Tuilagi

After all these years and all these new eras, England still need Manu Tuilagi. 

The Sale centre will go straight back into the national squad as soon as he has completed his recovery from a groin injury. 

There is no doubt that Steve Borthwick will make room for him in midfield, because explosive ball-carriers are in short supply. 

Such formidable figures are rare, among the indigenous population in these parts. Tuilagi brings Polynesian clout, as do Bundee Aki for Ireland and Sione Tuipulotu for Scotland – with Samoan and Tongan heritage, respectively. 

Manu Tuilagi will be recalled by England as soon as he has recovered from injury

Manu Tuilagi will be recalled by England as soon as he has recovered from injury

France have another of the formidable Tuilagi clan, 19-year-old Posolo – Manu’s nephew – in their squad, and the proud uncle may end up taking on his younger relative in Lyon next month. The Perpignan lock weighs more than 23 stone, so he will take some stopping. 

The same can be said for Emmanuel Meafou, Toulouse’s giant of Samoan ancestry who is also being fast-tracked by France. 

The Six Nations continues to be a showcase of relocated, Pacific-island power.

Six Nations Team of the Week

H Keenan (Ire); L Bielle-Biarrey (Fra), G Fickou (Fra), R Henshaw (Ire), J Lowe (Ire), J Crowley (Ire), B White (Sco); C Baille (Fra), D Sheehan (Ire), F Bealham (Ire); M Itoje (Eng), J McCarthy (Ire); J Conan (Ire), B Earl (Eng), T Reffell (Wal).

Last Word

It was a tough weekend for the sport’s image, in front of so many millions of casual viewers. It was not a vintage round of Six Nations action, with one glaring mis-match and all three games plagued by delays and officiating debates. 

Scotland were denied victory against France by a controversial call from referee Nic Berry

Scotland were denied victory against France by a controversial call from referee Nic Berry

Much as football is grappling with VAR and the double-edged sword of technological input into decisions, rugby has already been there and done that, and it keeps wearing the T-shirt. 

Raking over the no-try verdict at the death at Murrayfield won’t change anything now for the aggrieved Scots, but their burning sense of injustice is utterly understandable. It looked like a try. If those weren’t conclusive replays, then such replays don’t exist and never will. 

The system has to retain a common-sense streak at its heart and a primary trust in the referee to make the final call. At least James Doleman did that decisively in allowing George Ford’s conversion to be charged and kicked away by Wales, but the England No 10 was right when he said that a lateral step didn’t constitute the start of his advance to the ball. 

This is the problem rugby always has; it contains so many quirks and shades of grey. If anyone can find a way to de-clutter it, streamline the laws and keep it fair and feisty, then they deserve a knighthood.

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