Johnny Sexton will captain Ireland in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations starting next month after new head coach Andy Farrell appointed the veteran Leinster fly-half to lead the 35-man squad he named on Wednesday afternoon.
Sexton, 34, succeeds Rory Best who retired from all rugby following Ireland’s disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit to New Zealand in Japan three months ago and will be tasked with leading the national team into a new era following the departure of long-term head coach Joe Schmidt. Sexton and Munster skipper Peter O’Mahony were Best’s vice-captains and considered front-runners for the leadership role alongside lock James Ryan.
“We have appointed Johnny as captain for the 6 Nations Championships,” Farrell said. “You can see what it means to him and the enthusiasm he will bring to the role. “He has been developing as a leader for a number of years with Ireland, Leinster and the Lions and he will be a positive voice for the group.”
Sexton spoke of his pride at the appointment, calling it the biggest honour of his career.
"First of all it’s a massive honour to be asked to do it and I obviously got a taste for it during the World Cup for that one game and I’ve done it in patches with Ireland in-game when either Rory or Pete have gone off in previous games.
“It’s something that I enjoy but ultimately it’s a huge honour, the biggest honour of my career to be asked to do it and I’m really looking forward to it and looking forward to the challenges that are coming up and hopefully we can have a successful 6 Nations now."
Farrell has stepped into Schmidt’s shoes after three years as the New Zealander’s defence coach and the Englishman has not wasted time bringing in new blood, naming five uncapped players in his squad ahead of the championship opener at home to Scotland in Dublin on February 1: Ulster’s fly-half Billy Burns and tighthead prop Tom O’Toole, and the Leinster trio of back-rowers Max Deegan and Caelan Doris and hooker Ronan Kelleher.
Yet there is no room for veteran full-back Rob Kearney, who has struggled to hold onto the number 15 jersey at Leinster on his return from Japan, while conversely Devin Toner, the most controversial omission from Schmidt’s World Cup squad, has been named as one of four locks by Farrell with tournament squad member Jean Kleyn the fall guy.
Munster hooker Niall Scannell is another to miss out, losing his place to Connacht’s Dave Heffernan.
Munster’s contingent in Japan was 12 but a poor run of recent form as well as injury has accounted in part for the reduction in representation to eight, a figure that also includes a call-up for back-rower Jack O’Donoghue, whose last of two Test caps came in 2017 and was left out of Farrell’s 42-man pre-Christmas mid-season stocktake.
"At the get together in December we challenged the players to put their hands up for selection and the coaches are really pleased with the performances in recent weeks,” Farrell said of his selection.
“As we progress through the Championship we will look to select sides that we believe are best suited to the task at the weekend. We will keep a close eye on the provincial performances in the PRO14 not just for the players in the squad that will transition back for game minutes but also for those players that were part of the wider selection discussions over the past few weeks.”
Also named were four development players: Leinster trio Ryan Baird, Harry Byrne and Will Connors as well as Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune, who will train with the squad at Ireland’s warm-weather camp in Portugal in the lead up to the opening game against Scotland.
Farrell added: “The provinces are doing a great job in developing young talent and we feel there is an opportunity in the national set-up to support that work and get a better insight into some young players that have put in strong performances for their provinces. Ryan, Will, Harry and Robert will be the first ones to join the squad in this development role."
Ireland 2020 Guinness Six Nations Squad
Max Deegan (Lansdowne/Leinster) 0 caps
Caelan Doris (UCD/Leinster) 0 caps
Ultan Dillane (Corinthians/Connacht) 14 caps
Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster) 41 caps
Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) 95 caps
Dave Heffernan (Buccaneers/Connacht) 1 cap
Iain Henderson (Academy/Ulster) 53 caps
Rob Herring (Ballynahinch/Ulster) 8 caps
Ronan Kelleher (Lansdowne/Leinster) 0 caps
Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster) 36 caps
Jack McGrath (St Mary’s College/Ulster) 56 caps
Jack O’Donoghue (UL Bohemians/Munster) 2 caps
Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster) 64 caps
Tom O’Toole (Banbridge/Ulster) 0 caps
Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) 23 caps
James Ryan (UCD/Leinster) 23 caps
CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster) 38 caps
Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) 67 caps
Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster) 23 caps
Will Addison (Enniskillen/Ulster) 4 caps
Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht) 23 caps
Billy Burns (Ulster) 0 caps
Ross Byrne (UCD/Leinster) 3 caps
Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster) 18 caps
John Cooney (Terenure College/Ulster) 8 caps
Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) 82 caps
Chris Farrell (Young Munster/Munster) 9 caps
Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster) 40 caps
Dave Kearney (Lansdowne/Leinster) 19 caps
Jordan Larmour (St Mary’s College/Leinster) 21 caps
Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster) 19 caps
Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) 78 caps
Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster) 28 caps
Jonathan Sexton (St Marys College/Leinster) 88 caps CAPTAIN
Jacob Stockdale (Lurgan/Ulster) 25 caps
Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster)
Robert Baloucoune (Enniskillen/Ulster)
Harry Byrne (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Will Connors (UCD/Leinster)