Jack Crowley claims heir to Johnny Sexton’s No.10 shirt
Imagine the scene. It’s a beautiful evening in Nantes and the Stade de la Beaujoire is a sea of green as Ireland take to the pitch for their Pool B encounter with Tonga.
Andy Farrell’s starting line-up for this assignment might look familiar to the side that faced the Fijians in Dublin yesterday. Ireland face the Springboks at the Stade de France just seven days after what will be a grueling game against the Tongans.
Without a doubt, Farrell will keep a host of frontliners out of harm’s way for this one. Like yesterday, really.
Provided they are fit and board the flight to Paris next September, the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton and a few other big names will be seated in the stands.
There’s no way Sexton will be put in the line of fire against the Tongans, with crucial fixtures against South Africa and Scotland just around the corner.
Will Ireland still rely so heavily on Sexton 10 months from now? It is very likely. The veteran Leinster No10’s master plan to qualify for one final World Cup at 38 is coming to an end.
The big question is who has what it takes to step in and take Sexton’s place if the captain folds during the tournament, a scenario that happened in 2015 and 2019 when Ian Madigan and Jack Carty both been brought into the limelight, only to watch completely lost in the shine.
Maybe Jack Crowley is the answer? You wouldn’t have known that yesterday was his test debut. Barely charted on Johann van Graan’s watch, Crowley caught the eye of Ronan O’Gara at La Rochelle before opting to stay put and fight for his place at Munster.
O’Gara clearly saw something in this young offside. Farrell too. Crowley has just 20 senior appearances for Munster to his name and Ben Healy and Joey Carbery are apparently top of the provincial pecking order, but he could be one set for a huge season on national duty. Its current form almost single-handedly justified the tour that is dividing emerging Ireland.
Farrell has exhausted so many options in the semis at this point. Billy Burns and Ross Byrne had fleeting moments before they faded into obscurity. Carty apparently never did the trick. Harry Byrne can’t put two games together. Ciarán Frawley, despite all his recent progress, also has a worrying injury profile. Then there’s Carbery, which has yet to fully fire up.
He was solid here. No noise, but nothing spectacular either. A sickening late strike from Fijian flanker Albert Tuisue – who was duly sent off – ended his afternoon just six minutes into the second half. There is a nagging feeling that he plays into himself. He also plays way too deep.
Crowley duly stepped in for an eye-catching cameo. Are the stars aligning for this Munster starlet?
He could do a job for Ireland at Nantes next year. As things stand, he seems the most equipped to step in for Sexton if the unthinkable happens.
Which brings us back to this encounter with Tonga. The problem with Ireland’s looming opponents in the pool is that they’ve unearthed some world-class game-breakers thanks to World Rugby’s eligibility laws.
Tonga have likely exiled Wallaby Israel Folau, Munster midfielder Malakai Fekitoa and Bristol sensation Charles Piutau from their ranks.
A crew that is sure to give Ireland headaches in the outer channels. This experimental Irish side had plenty of trouble yesterday, and the ease with which the Fijian full-backs outflanked the hosts for Kalaveti Ravouvou’s first try will stick with Farrell and defense coach Simon Easterby for some time to come.
Tonga’s match will not be a walk in the park. It will be messy and frenetic, just like the Aviva Stadium of yesterday. How much did Farrell learn from this clash with the Fijians?
It’s always hard to know in November. World Cup cycles are not suitable for teams that need to find their players from all over the world. Fiji’s matchday squad included players who traveled from places like Queensland, Brive and Edinburgh to take up domestic duties.
Like Argentina, Japan and their Pacific Island brethren, the World Cup is where these minnows tend to leave their mark. The game is littered with warnings from history as these island nations ambushed a global heavyweight. Samoa did it in Wales. Fiji too. Tonga dominated France in Wellington in 2011 in the group stages, a team that eventually reached the final at Eden Park, let’s not forget.
All the focus will be on the crucial so-called pool meetings with the Boks and the Scots, but this Tonga game has a banana peel written all over it.
So Farrell needs to know that his fringe players are up to the task.
He discovered some yesterday.
Nick Timoney presented himself well.
The Ulster flanker oozes physicality on both sides of the ball and he has a serious drive.
It looked more like the Dubliner after a relatively quiet performance against the New Zealand A side on the RDS last week.
If we’re talking about midweek foot soldiers who can partake in messy (and physical) pool games, Kieran Treadwell is starting to fit that bill.
Ulster Lock has jumped up the second-tier pecking order in the past 12 months. There is still room for a bolter in 2023 and Tom Ahern, Joe McCarthy or even Edwin Edogbo (raw but full of potential) could make a late charge for the big one in France.
Don’t rule out Ryan Baird if Leinster’s talented young striker can string together a string of games. For now, Treadwell sits just below James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne (great again yesterday) and an in-form Iain Henderson in the lockout stocks.
Farrell clearly saw something in Treadwell. He hasn’t been a nailed-down starter under Dan McFarland’s watch, but Irish management believe he has the physical profile for the rigors of Test rugby.
The sight of Levani Botia bouncing off a charging Treadwell in the first half was telling. He could be very useful in the group stages.
A half with the presence and authority to mount a shotgun behind Sexton would also be welcome. Amid all the chaos during yesterday’s frantic performance, Jack the Boy pleaded for extra inclusion.