Sexton's 'throwaway' line fuels debate over Ireland future

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Pirate IRWIN
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Johnny Sexton is adamant his hint that he might not be around for the 2023 World Cup was a "throwaway line" but that has failed to quell a fevered debate over his future.

The 2018 world player of the year leads his side out on Saturday against Italy in the Six Nations after showing in Ireland's opening 21-16 defeat by Wales that he remains the key man.

His marshalling of the team reduced to 14 men for more than an hour nearly secured them a famous victory and he was much missed in the 15-13 loss to France a week later following a head knock.

Sexton will be 38 by the time of the 2023 World Cup in France but has often expressed his admiration for those who have remained at the top of their sport into their 40s.

Tom Brady probably figures high on that list, having captured hs fifth Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award earlier this month at the age of 43.

Brady has taken his fair share of hits down the years and Sexton can sympathise, having been the target man whether playing for Leinster or his country.

The fly-half is prone to niggling injuries but it is the knocks to the head that ring alarm bells.

Sexton was irritated when his former French neurologist said earlier this month he needed to be told the full risks of knocks to the head, calling the remarks "inappropriate".

The Irish skipper has had to put up with debate over his future ever since Ireland bowed out of the 2019 World Cup after defeat by New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

"It has been other people who have thrown fuel on the fire saying I would play on until I was 40 or 41," he said earlier this week.

"I have always taken the same position that I love what I do and I am privileged to do what I do. I still love it and will carry on playing due to that."

- Sexton appetite -

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell says it is clear that Sexton is still in love with the game and he would like to have him around for as long as possible.

"As long as Johnny keeps on giving to Irish rugby, he'll keep putting his foot forward to be in the equation, won't he?" Farrell said on Thursday.

"He feels good at this moment in time, his appetite is as strong as ever.

"He's certainly one of those guys that makes the feeling in the group feel right and as long as that appetite stays, I'm sure we will keep moving in the right direction regarding that."

How long that will be for is also dependent on a new contract, which Sexton says he is on the brink of signing.

"Conversations are going on in the background and both sides are happy with those conversations," Farrell said, referring to the contract talks.

If Sexton stays put it also allows the head coach to delay anointing his long-term successor.

Who that is appears a little clearer, with Ulster's Billy Burns named on the bench for Saturday, having been given the starting role against France.

The previous heir-apparent, Joey Carbery, has been unlucky with injuries but is back in the Munster squad after a year out.

"I think what we need to be cautious about is to give Joey the time," said Farrell.

What is clear is that the time is not yet right for Sexton to hang up his boots -- either for him or Ireland.