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19th Dec 2023

“It would be mad to say no to him” – Johnny Sexton linked with swift Ireland return

Patrick McCarry

“I don’t think ROG would like that, kind of second-hand, but it might be a way to get back in with Ireland.”

Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton dicing for another prime position in Irish rugby? We’ve been here before.

Back in 2017, Ronan O’Gara was invited to join Joe Schmidt during an end-of-season tour to North America. Felix Jones and Girvan Dempsey were also invited along to get a taste of the international coaching experience.

“Basically the role will be skills and hopefully working with the young number 10s,” O’Gara explained, at the time. “Depending on who goes it could be a number of young players and as you know it’s a position you get better with age. It’s important that their basic skills are good, especially their confidence levels are good. Hopefully I can pass on one or two learning tools and get to work with everybody.”

Just over six years on from that initiative from the IRFU, driven with an eye firmly on the future, O’Gara is the main man at La Rochelle, reigning European champs, Jones has joined the RFU after helping South Africa to back-to-back World Cups, and Dempsey is Head of Rugby at Collegiate School, in Bristol, after moving on from Bath in 2021.

When Mike Catt moves on from his backs/attach coach role, with Ireland, in the summer of 2024, each of those names may crop up as potential replacements. O’Gara would be unlikely to leave La Rochelle for an assistant coach role but – as floated on this site before – he could be tempted back as interim head coach while Andy Farrell is off on his British & Irish Lions sabbatical.

O’Gara seems more keen on being assistant to Farrell on the 2025 Lions Tour, and has said as much on Off The Ball, so we can park that notion for now. Felix Jones is only joining Steve Borthwick’s England set-up in 2024 so getting him to then join Ireland, later that year, seems unlikely.

There are plenty of excellent attack coach available, though, with one coach working over in France that may well be tempted back, two former players, the U20 head coach and a man doing wonders at Munster. All five names were discussed [from 3:35 below] on the latest House of Rugby:

Johnny SextonJohnny Sexton pictured during the 2023 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

Top candidates from Ireland attack coach

Mike Catt will vacate the Ireland attack coach role after the summer tour to South Africa, in 2024. IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora said, earlier this week, that if former Ireland outhalf and captain Johnny Sexton chooses he would like to get into coaching ‘we’d absolutely work with him’. He added:

“There’s a lot of rugby intellect in there and you’d like to access it or use it in some way if you had the ability to do it. But he’s got to decide what floats his boat over the next period of time.

“If he ever decides he wants to come back into coaching, the Irish system would be mad to say no to him.”

Nucifora says negotiations on a future assistant coach are confidential but he is confident the union will be in a position to announce the incumbent ‘in a few weeks’.

On House of Rugby, former Ireland star Lindsay Peat gave her take on Sexton possibly starting a coaching journey at Test level.

“Johnny Sexton, I have no doubted about his coaching potential but do you want to start from the top, or get in with Leinster maybe? Get into your coaching groove there and really dip your toe there, but I can’t speak for him… Continuity and bringing in someone who has been an underage coach, with these senior players now, does appeal to me.”

Other names in the mix are Jared Payne (former Ireland back, now coaching at Scarlets) and current Ireland U20s coach Richie Murphy. Noel McNamara, who preceded him in that U20s role, went abroad, to Sharks and now Bordeaux Begles, to expand his coaching brief.

McNamara is highly thought of by many within Irish rugby circles and that Bordeaux attack has looked pretty impressive in this season’s Champions Cup, slicing up Connacht and Bristol in successive games. Then we have Munster backs coach Mike Prendergast.

“He would have to be considered,” said Peat, “but I feel he is not finished with his time at Munster. His journey has only just started, with that coaching set-up, and there’s great days to come there. When he’s ready, he’s definitely a name to go into the hat.”

Add Felix Jones’ name to that list and there are six decent candidates, aside from whatever feelers or conversations Andy Farrell and the IRFU are having themselves. We should know more before the 2024 Six Nations, with any prospective attack coach maybe even dropping in on a few sessions during the championship.


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