Ireland's hopes of successfully defending its Six Nations title hinges on filling the "massive gap" left by Johnny Sexton's decision to retire after the nation's World Cup quarterfinal loss to New Zealand, former Irish fullback Hugo MacNeill said.

Sexton's retirement left head coach Andy Farrell needing to name a new captain and find a flyhalf who MacNeill says can "take a game by the scruff of the neck."

"There is huge pressure due to the massive gap Johnny Sexton left," MacNeill said.