Popular culture probably moves faster nowadays than at any other point in history, so it can be hard to keep up.

I was shocked in 2018 to find that a singer named Anne-Marie had released a song called ‘2002’, which was about a childhood romance – in my head, 2002 was about ten minutes ago but it seems time has accelerated at a rate I wasn’t ready for.

While COVID-19 is a factor in my non-attendance at the cinema since February 2020 (Dark Water, an engaging Mark Ruffalo legal thriller), domestic duties mean that a trip isn’t on the immediate horizon and the likeliest way that I’ll see the new James Bond film is [redacted by Journal lawyers, with Denis sent on an intensive course to learn the dangers of piracy].

The TV show of the moment is Succession, with the third series having commenced recently, and while it’s on the outer edges of the radar as something to watch, there never seems to be a sufficient chunk of time in which to immerse oneself into it.

In any case – and here’s the laboured metaphor that we’ve been building up to – the big succession issue for Irish sports fans to worry about at the moment is the future of the out-half position on the international rugby team.

Autumn tests

The autumn internationals start for Ireland this weekend with a clash against Japan at Aviva Stadium on Saturday (1pm) and, at the midpoint between World Cups, the number 10 shirt is probably the most pressing issue for head coach Andy Farrell and his management team.

Captain and incumbent at fly-half Jonathan Sexton is 36 now, but last December, he expressed the hope that he will be able to play a part in France in two years’ time.

“There’s been guys in teams over the years that have gone to World Cups at 37 or 38,” he said.

“Brad Thorn, a guy I played with [at Leinster] is my inspiration at the moment! Richie McCaw winning a World Cup at the age he did, Dan Carter having an incredible World Cup after being written off and struggling with injuries for numerous years. Do I think I can get there? I think I can. But at the age I’m at, you’ve got to take it one year at a time.”

Then, in February of this year, he admitted that there is a chance that he won’t be involved by then, though he did have full faith that the team would be in a good place, with or without him.

“When we talk about World Cup cycles, I might not be a part of the full cycle,” he said, “but this group will definitely be better for this type of coaching and structures.”

Whatever happens by that stage, Sexton will win his 100th cap during this set of internationals, with New Zealand – who made light work of Wales last week – in Dublin on 13 November and Argentina the opposition on 21 November.

Next in line

The key battle is to be the next in line, with Joey Carbery of Munster and Leinster’s Harry Byrne named in Farrell’s squad for these games, while another Leinster man, the uncapped Ciarán Frawley, could also play at 10, but will most likely feature in the centre.

It means that Jack Carty, who has been in superb form for Connacht, Byrne’s brother Ross, also of Leinster, and Ulster’s Billy Burns are not called upon this time. The strong competition for the spot is a good thing for Ireland and Farrell as he looks towards 2023, ideally bringing out the best in the cast of pretenders and ensuring that Sexton is pushed hard, too – though his professionalism has never been in doubt.

Here and now

Of course, it’s not all about future-proofing, with the three games ahead there to be won on their own merits and as a guide to what the 2022 Six Nations might hold. There was a time when a win against Japan would be taken for granted, but no longer, with the Brave Blossoms now ranked 10th in the world. Back in July, a developmental Ireland team won by 39-31 at the Aviva and Japan’s only game since was a 32-23 loss to Australia.

The ideal scenario for Ireland is a hardish-fought win to be in the best shape for the visit of the All Blacks, which, as always, will be the most serious barometer of the three outings, though the Argentina match will also be a stiff test – the Pumas are currently ranked eighth in the world.

Aside from the out-half debate, the absence of Robbie Henshaw means that the centre pairing will come under the spotlight. Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki will be given the chance to blend and it will be a good opportunity for Ringrose to underline some of the early hype of his career.

However, an interesting addition to the mix is Australian-born Mack Hansen, who has been in superb form for Connacht. He qualifies for Ireland as, like the best of us, he has a Cork mother.

In the pack, there will be some focus on how well Andrew Porter’s switch from tighthead prop to loosehead goes. South African Trevor Nyakane has shown that it is possible and hopefully Porter is able to adapt.

Behind him, James Ryan will be seeking to rediscover his top form after hitting a bit of a plateau, albeit one that was completely understandable, so vertiginous was his early rise. Being left out of the Lions squad will have stung but the Leinster lock is still only 25 and has time on his side. CL