Rory Best says that Johnny Sexton has widened the gap between him and his fly-half competitors in the Ireland squad.
Former hooker Best fears that Ireland are more reliant on the veteran playmaker now than in the build-up to the World Cup in Japan in 2019.
Sexton, the current Ireland captain, underwent surgery on a cheekbone injury but is still set to feature for Andy Farrell’s side during the Six Nations.
Sexton leading the pack
The 37-year-old was on top of his game in 2022, guiding Ireland to a runners-up place in the Six Nations, a series victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand, and wins in the end-of-year Tests against Australia and France.
He was shortlisted for the World Rugby Player of the Year Award for his efforts and remains his country’s undisputed first-choice for the number 10 role, with the World Cup fast approaching.
Farrell has tested the depth at Ireland with the likes of Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Ross Byrne, Harry Byrne, Billy Burns, Ciaran Frawley and Jack Crowley all deputising for Sexton since 2020.
However, Best believes his former international team-mate has widened the gap to his rivals and admits the lack of competition is “a worry”.
“I definitely don’t think we’re less dependent; we were probably less dependent on Johnny about six or seven years ago than we are now,” said the ex-Ireland captain.
“I think there’s a combination of things. Joey’s injuries haven’t helped since the last World Cup, while Johnny has played some of the best rugby he’s ever played, and then we’ve got a lot of young guys who aren’t getting a lot of game time, starting 10 in big games.
“There’s plenty of URC (United Rugby Championship) experience there, and as we’ve sort of seen, I think in the URC there’s, unfortunately, a gulf between the top and bottom teams; it’s too big.
“I don’t know that we’re necessarily any closer to finding cover for Johnny. If anything, Johnny has widened the gap by the way he’s playing, and in the way he’s leading, which is always a worry.”
Ireland kick off their Six Nations campaign as the top-ranked side in the world, and Farrell’s men will be eager to build on last year’s Triple Crown success.
Yet, Best believes there is a case for using the tournament to develop competition for the likes of Sexton and tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong.
“This Six Nations will be interesting to see is it about a Grand Slam or a championship and really ramming home that momentum that we’ve built over the last couple of years,” said the 40-year-old.
“Or is there a scenario where we go, ‘we’ve a couple of holes around Furlong, around Sexton, and we’re going to put them on the bench to give us a safety blanket, but we’ve got to try to push through the next people in there’.
“That’s a question that will be answered over the next couple of months, and it will be a question that Andy will know the answer to himself. But ultimately, that is a decision and a strategy that has to be made.”
Ireland face Wales in the opening round of the Six Nations on February 4 before hosting the defending champions France at the Aviva Stadium seven days later. They have away matches against Italy and Scotland before completing their campaign against England in Dublin.
READ MORE: Six Nations coaching changes have ‘brought a little bit of unknown’
The article Ireland: ‘Johnny Sexton has widened the gap by the way he’s playing,’ says Rory Best appeared first on Planetrugby.com.