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Six Nations: World Cup cycles don’t matter for Ireland, replacing Sexton does

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As the Cranberries classic Zombie rang around the Stade de France at multiple points during last year’s Rugby World Cup, it almost seemed destined that fly-half and Ireland great Johnny Sexton would cap his career standing by lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy.

The four provinces were coached by Andy Farrell for the first time at the tournament and hopes were high of a first ever knockout victory, having swept the Six Nations in 2023 to the tune of a Grand Slam.

But it wasn’t to be. Ireland were beaten by eventual finalists New Zealand and the giants of European rugby rumbled on without global honours.

For Farrell, who has been confirmed as the coach of the British and Irish Lions meaning he will not take charge of Ireland in next year’s Six Nations, World Cup cycles are a myth and picking the best team available – regardless of age of experience – comes first.

Ireland cycles

“I don’t know what everyone else is saying,” says Farrell. “But for me you look at the squad we’ve picked over the last couple of years, we’ve capped a lot of players, a good few of those are under 10 caps [now], and some have not been involved in the squad over the last 12 months.

“So trying to grow the squad is pretty important. Is this a new start? It’s not because of everything we have been through. We want to continue to grow, wanting to evolve our game. You don’t just do that by cutting it off. 

“Competition for places is premium and it needs to stay that way. This is the start of a new Six Nations but I don’t buy into the four-year cycle that tends to come around when World Cups are finished.”

Ireland will go into this Six Nations as one of the favourites and the odds placed upon them will dramatically lengthen or shorten within the next 48 hours, because Farrell’s men are in France tomorrow night taking on France. 

Les Bleus may be playing away from their iconic Stade de France home this year due to the Olympics – a stadium Ireland have enjoyed some success in recently – but Marseille is set to provide an equally hostile reception for the visiting side.

Post-Sexton era

They’re in a post-Sexton era but this start, followed by Wales at home, is a ferocious one for the players.

The fly-half was always a target for opposition teams and often hobbled on through matches despite the physicality.

Whether Farrell sticks or twists with his fly-half options during this year’s competition remains to be seen, but he does state that players need rest now more than ever.

“Rotation is needs must, in this competition,” Farrell insists. “It is a fight because international rugby is of the highest order as far as physicality, intensity, rivalry, emotion — all of those things.

“I know that it has been talked about down the track, one of the break weeks being knocked off It would be interesting if that happened to see how that pans out because players tend to need a rest in my view based on what I have seen in this competition in the past. I don’t see that [physicality] diminishing in the future.”

Ireland are a fascinating Test match animal: they have brilliant winning runs that take some of the most incredible opposition rugby to dispose of them, and their depth – drawn from four highly competitive provinces – matches any rival.

But they proved unable to take their Grand Slam winning form of last year into the World Cup and they’re suddenly back where they started.

Farrell may not believe in the World Cup cycle, but the only way many will forget the events of last year’s showpiece is a repeat of the Six Nations success. 

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