PARIS (AFP) – Ireland winning the Six Nations title will not have a direct impact on their hopes of finally reaching at least the Rugby World Cup semi-finals, but the key to both is Johnny Sexton remaining fit, according to former Irish fullback Hugo MacNeill.
Sexton will be 38 come the World Cup in France in September, but the Ireland skipper is as pivotal to his team’s fortunes as he was in the 2015 and 2019 editions.
When Sexton took over at fly-half from Ronan O’Gara, he had earned it and it was a natural succession.
And when not injured he has retained his world class form – he was world player of the year in 2018 – and those who were tried in his absence have failed to dislodge him.
Sexton inspired the Irish to winning the Six Nations Triple Crown and a historic series win in New Zealand last year.
As a result they go into their opening Six Nations match with Wales on Saturday ranked world number one.
Joey Carbery was seen as Sexton’s likeliest successor.
So much so he moved to Munster in 2018 from Sexton’s province Leinster but to general surprise the New Zealand-born playmaker has been omitted from the Six Nations squad.
“The Irish have more strength in depth in most positions than four years ago,” MacNeill told AFP in an interview.
“However, the biggest issue regarding the Six Nations and the World Cup is Johnny Sexton.
“Ireland are very dependent on Johnny both as a player and as a leader. Johnny is crucial to the team.”