Irish icon wants Johnny Sexton to ‘channel his inner Tom Brady’ for 2023 RWC

There comes a day when every elite sports team must bid farewell to its most valuable players, even one who has been so instrumental to Ireland 's success over the past decade as Johnny Sexton.

As he prepares to become just the seventh Irish player to bring up a century of caps for his country, however, the Leinster architect remains a steadfast part of the bedrock for the national team.

Having celebrated his 36th birthday in July, it shouldn't be a surprise Sexton has gestured towards the exit in recent months, suggesting the current campaign could be his last as a professional.

With a little less than two years to go before the 2023 Rugby World Cup kicks off in France, now is the time when coach Andy Farrell would have liked to see an obvious heir to the fly-half's throne.

But one hasn't arisen, and ex-Ireland centre Gordon D'Arcy, Sexton's former comrade for club and country, has urged his old ally to take a leaf from the book of evergreen NFL star Tom Brady and play further into his golden years.

"When Stuart Lancaster arrived in Leinster he challenged Sexton to push out his career in a playing capacity, citing quarterback Tom Brady as an example of a player whose drive was undiminished as his 40th birthday approached," D'Arcy wrote for the Irish Times.

"Brady, 44, threw for over 400 yards and five touchdowns for the first time in his career at the weekend, less than eight months after leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl title. Sexton will be 38 in the summer prior to the 2023 Rugby World Cup and, as things currently stand, Irish rugby might need him to channel his inner Brady."

While it's true Brady has set something of a gold standard for playing past the 'normal' retirement age, it's worth highlighting the physical demands of an NFL quarterback are perhaps less than those of a fly-half in rugby.

Over the course of two stints with Leinster, a two-season stay with Racing 92 in Paris and two tours with the British and Irish Lions, one can understand how the hits have piled up in the 15 years since Sexton's senior debut.

D'Arcy himself played for Leinster and Ireland right up until his retirement in 2015, aged 35, but he acknowledged Robbie Henshaw was waiting in the wings to assume the midfield mantle for Ireland.

Do you think Johnny Sexton will be Ireland's starting fly-half at the 2023 Rugby World Cup? Let us know in the comments section.

Sexton finds himself at a similar point in his career, but as D'Arcy noted, the Dubliner remains "on merit first choice for his province and the national team."

"It’s not in his [Sexton's] nature to step aside, that cussedness an essential character trait, integral to his personality and one that has served him admirably particularly in adversity. He was never going to simply hand over a jersey. An issue for Leinster and Ireland is no one has been able to take it from him."

In an ideal world, Munster playmaker Joey Carbery wouldn't have endured the injury struggles he has in recent years and may therefore already have enough momentum to take over the No. 10 jersey.

As things stand, however, he's part of an uncertain rotation with the likes of Billy Burns and Leinster brothers Ross and Harry Byrne, none of whom look ready to replicate Sexton's assuredness on the Test stage.

Two-time Six Nations champion D'Arcy pointed to the likes of Craig Casey, Ronan Kelleher, Hugo Keenan and Dan Sheehan as examples of the next generation poised to plant their flags, but it's a different matter altogether in Sexton's spot.

"There is a genuine dilemma 22 months out from the Rugby World Cup as to the identity of the person best equipped to drive Ireland in the number 10 jersey," he continued.

"As things stand that person is Sexton. There are two questions that follow. Can Johnny maintain those levels? Is someone capable of displacing him during that time frame?"

Sexton could earn his 100th Ireland cap in any of the upcoming November Tests against Japan, New Zealand or Argentina, while he's also 159 points from overtaking Ronan O'Gara as the country's all-time top points scorer.

Another of Sexton's former Leinster team-mates and the club's current backs coach, Felipe Contepomi, recently compared the player to "a good Bordeaux," proof he also has faith despite the former's advanced years.

Brady made his mark on American football by winning six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before claiming a record seventh ring after he joined the Buccaneers in 2020.

Having confessed retirement could be an option in the foreseeable future, Sexton may have to overcome his own late career transition if Ireland are to have their best possible chance at World Cup glory in France.

It's a lot to ask of one who's already given so much for the national cause, but amid the current options, he remains the optimal man for the job.

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