Ireland put forward an outstanding performance in the Autumn Internationals to defeat New Zealand and earn a semblance of revenge for their World Cup quarter-final loss. Under Joe Schmidt, the Shamrocks suffered a humbling defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in the last eight in Japan, ending their campaign prematurely.
However, Andy Farrell’s side issued the perfect response to their disappointment with a 29-20 victory at the Aviva Stadium to provide a timely reminder that they are not to be overlooked for the 2022 Six Nations. Ireland have put in excellent performances in isolation since the World Cup and under the tenure of Farrell, but now have the challenge of raising their game over the stretch of five matches. They are backed in the rugby union betting odds at 3/1 to win the tournament, which is behind France and England in the minds of the bookmakers.
Therefore, Farrell and his team have motivation to prove they are still the top heavyweight in the northern hemisphere, especially after their victory over the All Blacks. An element of concern is an injury sustained by Jonny Sexton in the contest. The Ireland skipper was outstanding for 63 minutes before he was forced off after twisting his ankle and knee.
The injuries are expected to sideline the 36-year-old for at least six weeks, which does not leave Ireland’s most important player a lot of time to gear up for the Six Nations. Joey Carbery was solid in relief and nailed all three of his kicks against the All Blacks, but he is not Sexton. It is the primary issue that Ireland must address for their short and long-term future as ailments are beginning to plague the fly-half. When he is on the pitch, Sexton remains electric with ball in hand as well as his tactical command of the backfield. However, these incidents are beginning to become a regular occurrence, and although Farrell will want his key playmaker on the pitch, it might be better for the team in the long run to gamble on the development of Carbery.
Carbery slotted into place for the final match of the Autumn Internationals in Ireland’s hammering of Argentina. He was on the mark all over the pitch, nailing his kicks from range along with controlling the tempo of the game. If the 26-year-old can perform to that standard against the Pumas, it should raise belief that he is ready for greater responsibility. Farrell might not even have to make a massive decision regarding the future of Sexton as the two players could split equally over the course of the Six Nations. With the 2023 World Cup on the horizon, Farrell needs to know who will be starting in the backfield in France. Sexton has been an outstanding servant and remains the better player for now, but how long will it take for the injuries to diminish his ability on the field.
It is not an easy choice and the form of Carbery has made it a tough one. Sexton is still the man you want in a one-off game, but over the course of a gruelling Six Nations campaign, Farrell may want to establish consistency at the position as well as leadership of the team. The 2022 Six Nations could be an illuminating tournament regarding the future of Irish rugby.