List of Top 10 at Number 10: Irish Rugby Players at Out-Half

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Today I want to talk about probably the most argued topic in Irish rugby. That topic is the Irish ten jersey.

It is a hotly debated topic and always seems to rear its head when you are a few pints deep and people get passionate. I will aim to do something rare today and that is be logical and try and keep my bias out of the equation. No promises though.

I’ll pick my personal top 5 options as we start this World Cup year and the top 5 players that give Ireland the best chance of going as deep as possible in France.

 

1.       Johnny Sexton Leinster

No surprise here. I have to hold my hand up here and admit that back in 2021 I thought Johnny was done. His form was poor and when he wasn’t selected for the 2021 Lions tour, I thought that was the final nail in the coffin. I thought Ireland would look elsewhere and the post Sexton era was about to begin. I was wrong, very wrong. Sexton is still producing world class rugby at the age of 37.

In previous decades that would have seemed impossible but we are starting to see this in a lot of sports, players playing at high levels way longer than previous generations.

Lebron James in the NBA is still incredible at 38 and Tom Brady in the NFL is 45 which is insane. Modern science and players taking great care of themselves has led to these new norms.

What’s even more impressive with Johnny, however, is his competitiveness. He is psychotic about winning and you can still see that losing drives him crazy.

This is from a man who has won 6 Nations, has won Champions Cups, plenty of leagues and has beaten every big team in the world with Ireland, bar a World Cup Johnny has won it all. Yet he still is driven to play at the top level and to win. Ronan O’Gara retired from rugby at 35 and he was by no means the player he was in his prime. Johnny is two years older and playing as good of stuff as he was ten years ago, its crazy to think about.

Johnny will be the man to lead Ireland in France this year barring injury. He is the heartbeat of the team and when he’s playing well the rest of the team play well, they go as he goes. Now, I would be lying if I said that Johnny’s importance over the team doesn’t scare the crap out of me, because it does. No team relies on one player like Ireland do. If Johnny is not available for the world cup, Ireland go from one of the favourites, to a team who don’t stand a chance, that’s the scary reality.

This is a problem we have created ourselves of course. When Johnny is available, 95% of the time he plays, and he plays big minutes at that. We expect the other options at ten to impress and impact a game with five minutes of game time, it just doesn’t work like that.

Ireland have had several chances to give other players big games and big minutes to players over the past two years and it has happened very rarely. Will it come back to bite Ireland is the rear end this year? We hope not but we better hope Ireland are due some injury luck.

2.       Joey Carbery Munster

Andy Farrell has stuck by Joey throughout the years. Similar to Johnny in that sense, when joey is available, he’s on the squad and more than likely on the game day squad. I will say recently Joey has shown some form with Munster which is great to see. Irish fans would be lying to themselves if they said that Joey has become the player we all hoped he would.

Through injury troubles he has never kicked on from his Leinster days and that is a real shame. The frustration from a lot of Irish fans has been that even through the poor form of Joey, he was always selected to squads when other players were performing better with their clubs.

 

Now that could be for several reasons. Andy Farrell clearly trusts him and likes what he does for the team. Another reason could be Farrell’s lack of trust in other options, which I am sure has validity. With that being said Joey hasn’t seen a huge amount of game time with Ireland. His appearances tend to be the last 5-10 minutes of games and then the odd start against Italy or when Johnny is injured. In his defence that’s not as easy system to flourish in. It would be hard to expect him to get into a rhythm when playing so little.

 

This 6 Nations will be interesting to see if Farrell allows more game time for Joey or if it will be more of the same. The big questions is about trust with Joey. Do fans trust him to win a quarter final if necessary? Do the players even trust him on that level? I am not sure but its not strange to think that in a potential quarter final against New Zealand or France, if Joey starts due to a Sexton injury, the players may not believe as much with Joey at the reigns.

They have not seen him win games like they have with Johnny, again harking back to my point about the issue we have created ourselves. Joey will be the number two for the world cup and Farrell might need to be rewarded for sticking with Joey or else it could make him look silly.

3.       Jack Crowley Munster 

The new kid on the block. Some people wont like that he is third on this list due to his age and inexperience and I can see that point. I have him here for a few reasons.

Firstly, I think he is a different type of player than both Johnny and Joey. Probably due to his youth but he plays with a fearlessness that is special and has a knack of making something out of nothing. We seen that against Ulster recently for Munster, it looked like he was going nowhere and then boom he is cutting up the field and making 30 yards. Having that an an option when the style of Johnny isn’t working and the team are behind with 20 minutes to go is only a good thing. Bringing on a player with a similar style to Johnny would be pointless if its already not working.

Secondly, Crowley seems to love the spotlight and is at ease on the big stage. Some players shy away from the big moments because of the pressure and that is normal.

Some players seem right at home in it, and I believe Jack to be one of those players. His youth and inexperience could be an asset also. He doesn’t have any mental baggage that some other options at ten might have and having that unknown of what failure on a big stage feels like might be the reason he excels at this world cup.

4.       Ross Byrne Leinster 

Ross can feel hard done by here not to be in the third spot. Lately he has been in fantastic form for Leinster and seems to be the man to take over from Johnny at the club whenever he decides to hang them up.

Ross has several strength and the main one is his kicking. He is a phenomenal kicker under pressure and that is a huge asset to have going to a world cup. Credit also has to go his resiliency. Watching as his international career seemed to be over and then your own brother is getting all these headlines and the Ciaran Frawley emerges as a potential candidate, this cant have been easy for Ross. He kept his head down and now is seeing the rewards for his hard work.

 

The reason he drops to 4 for me is how similar his game is to Sexton and Carberry. We all know that Johnny and Joey are going to the world cup so the only slot available is that third kicker. To me it wouldn’t make sense to choose someone who is so similar to your first two options. You need an option that’s a bit different and a bit unorthodox and to me that is Crowley. So its nothing against Ross and I think he has been underrated by Irish fans for a long time but he just misses out on play style.

5.       Ciaran Frawley Munster 

This was by far the hardest selection to make. You could argue a few players for this spot and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with any of them. Jack Carty could go here but with his kicking and lack of confidence at the moment it just doesn’t make sense. Billy Burns is a similar situation. Lack of form and part of an Ulster team that are not playing well. Plus, with Billy the fact he doesn’t kick isn’t a great sign and I feel unlike Crowley, Billy may not love the biggest stage.

Frawley has proved to be a considerable young talent and a versatile player. Being able to play at ten as well as inside centre, wing and full back means you are more valuable to a coach.

We all know how important these types of player are to Farrell. Jimmy O’Brien is a great example of this. He can play three positions and having that flexibility means its easier to select you as a coaching staff. For that reason, I could see him being on a squad. His lack of experience in Irish squads is obviously an issue but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in a 6 Nations squad this year and who knows after that. A big performance or two in the 6 Nations could be enough to sway Andy Farrell.

6 to 10 Irish out halves

You can look at the other five candidates but they have no realistic chance of making it to the six nations never mind a World Cup unless three of the players above get injured.

6. Jack Carty
7. Harry Byrne
8. Billy Burns
9. Ian Madigan
10. Harry West

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