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Dublin: 14 °C Friday 19 September, 2014

Jonny Sexton’s captaincy claims fly out the window

The Racing Métro out-half was a leading candidate for the honour last November but is not in the mix this time around.

Jonny Sexton observes Ireland's training, on Tuesday, from a scaffold.
Jonny Sexton observes Ireland's training, on Tuesday, from a scaffold.
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland

“Maybe one day. I’ve got a lot to learn as a leader, I suppose, and how to control a team so maybe it was the right decision at the time.” — Jonny Sexton, November 2012

With Declan Kidney seeking to revitalise an Irish team after a traumatic tour to New Zealand, he rolled the dice and decided to name a new captain. Brian O’Driscoll was refusing to look beyond 2012/13 and Kidney was eyeing the 2015 World Cup.

Paul O’Connell was out injured and Rory Best was behind the pecking order due to the Irish qualification of South African hooker Richardt Strauss. Two outstanding candidates remained — Sexton and Jamie Heaslip. The out-half revealed how Kidney had visited his room at Carton House to discuss the captaincy.

Kidney went with the No.8 and both O’Driscoll and Sexton rowed in behind the decision. Heaslip, who learned of his elevation to the captaincy while shopping in Tesco, said it was ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’.

One year on and Kidney has been replaced by Joe Schmidt. Heaslip had a rough ride as Irish captain, trying to focus on the positives as he took to the pitch each week with an increasing flow of fresh faces. Sexton was one of 18 Irish players who missed out on Six Nations action through injury or suspension.

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Heaslip tries to rally his wounded troops during the away loss to Italy. INPHO/James Crombie

Schmidt will name his first Ireland team tomorrow afternoon and O’Driscoll may re-take the captaincy from Heaslip. Paul O’Connell is the leading candidate while Rory Best’s name has been mentioned by coaches and teammates alike. Peter O’Mahony, who led Ireland on their summer tour to North America, is the outside bet.

Gordon D’Arcy has spoken of the five men that could easily lead Ireland. Chris Henry name-checked O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Best and Heaslip as “inspirational characters” and would be happy to be led by any of the quartet. Sexton’s name is conspicuous by its absence.

The Racing Métro man has played 12 matches in 10 weeks for his new side since his summer move from Leinster. He was slow to settle [three games] but, with winger Marc Andreu, has been Racing’s driving force.

Heaslip and Sexton still have the strongest cases. Best’s international form has been patchy and his lineout throwing fell off the wagon late last season, and on the Lions Tour. O’Driscoll is hanging up the boots at the end of the season. O’Mahony has only recently established himself in the side [and would lose out to a fit Stephen Ferris]. O’Connell has not played for Ireland since March 2012 and is struggling with a calf injury at present.

By basing himself in France, Sexton seems to have indefinitely hindered his ambitions to lead Ireland. He should be the sensible, long-term, form option but Racing flexed their muscles last week to call him back to sit on the bench against Biarritz. They are his paymasters now and Sexton priorities have suddenly changed.

From the IRFU’s perspective, with 11 senior players out of contract in 2014, awarding the one senior Irish player based in France the captaincy would be akin to unlatching the gate.

Interestingly, the whole situation could have been avoided if Kidney had chosen Sexton as his captain last year. The out-half certainly would have felt valued then and French advances would have been spurned.

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McFadden reflects on Ireland’s crash landing under Kidney

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