Wednesday, December 6, 2023

In Ireland’s history of great out-half rivalries these two are primed to go to war

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Ballymore in 1976 was the setting for one of the great selection twists in Irish rugby history.

Ireland had travelled to Australia for a daunting two-match tour. Luckily, they had two excellent out-halves on board.

Tony Ward was the star attraction and landed in Oz as European Player of the Year. Ollie Campbell was riding shotgun with just one cap to his name.

Tony Ward, May 24, 1979. Pic: Barry John Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Everyone assumed Ward would start the opening Test in Brisbane, even Campbell himself.

The rest is history. Campbell got the nod and Ward was sensationally dropped. The newly-installed No10 kicked 15 points in a famous 27-12 win. Campbell retained his spot and led Ireland to a historic series win.

It was the beginning of one of the great rivalries. And it’s a thread which has been repeated through the decades.

Ireland Rugby
Ollie Campbell. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland

David Humphreys and Ronan O’Gara had a brilliant battle for the No10 jersey through the years. Both players were driven and ambitious characters but it was always amicable.

You couldn’t say the same about ROG v Johnny Sexton, however. Neither man gave an inch, on and off the field, as both jockeyed for position to be Ireland’s frontline playmaker. It was a relationship which only cooled after the Corkman retired.

Did it bring the best out of both players? It certainly drove on O’Gara in the latter stages of his career. The idea of being usurped by a fiery young Leinster outhalf lit a fire under the Munster man.

David Humphreys. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
David Humphreys. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Then, we had a near-decade of Sexton as the uncontested and undisputed out-half on national duty. There were a few fleeting moments of opposition, with a fit and firing Joey Carbery the closest to upsetting the established order.

But Johnny was always on top. It was the case right throughout the last three World Cup cycles. He was by far and away the best option as conductor-in-chief and his absence on big days – in Cardiff and Shizuoka in 2015 and 2019 – was doomsday scenario stuff.

Not that the lack of competition hindered Sexton. Far from it. He was just wired that way. He didn’t need a young pretender snapping at his heels to hit top gear.

Ronan O'Gara
La Rochelle Head Coach Ronan O’Gara. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Now, Sexton has hung up his boots and it looks like the wheel has turned again.

A new chapter in the great Irish out-half rivalry is about to commence. Jack Crowley (23) and Sam Prendergast (20) are still learning their trade but they look primed to fight it out for the Ireland No10 shirt en route to the 2027 World Cup in Australia, and beyond.

Crowley is a bit further down the track. He has made 38 appearances for his province and has nine international caps to his name. He will be more than pleased with his contributions at the recent World Cup in France.

He has gone from third choice behind Ben Healy and Carbery at his province to top dog at Thomond Park in the space of 12 months.

2023 Rugby World Cup Pool B, Stade de France, Saint-Denis, France 23/9/2023 South Africa vs Ireland Ireland’s Johnny Sexton reacts. Pic: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The Bandon-born out-half was excellent at the weekend. It wasn’t a night for flash stuff at Thomond Park, with the wind howling and rain belting around the famed Limerick venue.

It was one of those games when the forwards had to grind it out. They were thankful to have Crowley nudging them on the front-foot with those long, raking touch-finders which were O’Gara’s trademark when he seemingly bent games to his will on big Heineken Cup nights.

There is a steel to Crowley too. On several occasions, he shipped some big hits from a few hardy Sharks forwards.

That’s the thing about out-halves who play flat to the line. They know that a feral flanker is just waiting around every corner, eyeing up a big hit. On each occasion,

Crowley dusted himself down and got back to business.

jack crowley
Munster’s Jack Crowley celebrates following his side’s win over the Stormers in the URC final. Pic: INPHO/Steve Haag Sports/Steve Haag

As things stand, he looks set to be front and centre ahead of Saturday’s blockbuster derby against Leinster at Aviva Stadium.

No doubt, there will be calls for Crowley to start for Ireland in the Six Nations opener against France in February.

As Andy Farrell looks to rebuild in the post-Sexton era, Crowley looks a natural successor. He has an opportunity to stamp his authority and become the main man, for province and country. Crucially, he is the kind of instinctive, attack-minded out-half who plays flat and offers a running threat himself. That puts him at the top of the list when head coach Farrell and his backroom team sit down to select the starting line-up to face Les Bleus at Stade Velodrome next year.

2023 Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 5, Musgrave Park, Cork 19/3/2023 Ireland vs England Ireland’s Sam Prendergast. Pic: INPHO/Ben Brady

Prendergast has a bit of ground to make up, on both fronts. He first has to elbow his way to the top of the Leinster queue, ahead of the Byrne brothers and Ciarán Frawley. No mean feat. Ross Byrne has a lot of credit in the bank with Leo Cullen and he has been trusted to run the show on a lot of big days for Leinster. He isn’t just going to give up his starting berth to a young prospect without a fight.

Byrne sat back and listened to many observers – including Brian O’Driscoll – laud his younger brother Harry a few seasons back. Indeed, he even sat at home and watched his younger sibling make the cut for the summer tour of New Zealand in 2022. Byrne bided his time and took his opportunities when presented the following season. Prendergast certainly has a fight on his hands. Time is on his side, though. Eventually, he will be first-choice at his home province.

Saturday night’s rout of the Scarlets was just Prendergast’s sixth senior appearance for Leinster and only his third start. He had an armchair ride at the RDS as the home pack along with returning Ireland stars like

Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris ensured a steady steam of quick ball for the young out-half to do his thing.

And when Prendergast is on the front foot, he looks a fine player. The same player that earned rave reviews for an Ireland U20s which won a Grand Slam and made a World Cup final last season.

Crowley, as it happens, was another former underage prodigy. Tipped for stardom, it took him a few years to assert himself.

Part of it was staying patient and part of it was a conservative selection policy under the previous regime, but Crowley eventually emerged.

And Prendergast’s time will come, too. Yes, he is still a bit raw, but there is so much to like about his game. The thing which strikes you is the Sexton-esque sense of control. The likeness is uncanny as well, with the shaved head, narrow shoulders and furrowed brow.

His cross-field kick is a real weapon and his passing and kicking game is top class. Crowley, at the moment, has the edge as a defender. It’s going to be fascinating to see how both players develop in the coming years. Indeed, next summer’s tour of South Africa may be the starting point for the next race for No10. A big selection call on a tour can define an era. Ward and Campbell would tell them all about that.

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