Ireland coaches habitually don’t do shouting from the rooftops. The Grand Slam-winning Declan Kidney used to go about his business as quiet as a church mouse and while fellow Grand Slammer Joe Schmidt was prone to the odd showbiz appearance on Irish TV talk show The Late, Late Show, rugby insights were Kidney-like scarce due to the soft line of questioning.
New boss Andy Farrell appears to hail from the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ school of thought judging how he has set out his stall following his promotion from assistant coach.
In December only handpicked media organisations were invited to attend a cosy Ferrero-Rocher-on-the-table pre-Christmas gathering, and the air of aloofness continued on Wednesday with the manner of his first Six Nations squad announcement.
Whereas counterparts Gregor Townsend and Wayne Pivac whetted the appetite by fronting up respectively in Scotland and Wales and hosted media conferences to unveil their 38-man squads for the upcoming Guinness-sponsored tournament, Farrell’s selection of his 35 was contrastingly low key – a filtered four-minute 26-second video being released on his behalf by the IRFU.
His unchallenged message was that his squad is dynamic, powerful and aggressive with a lot of skill and speed, a nice soundbite if rah-rah soundbites are your thing twelve-and-a-half weeks on from the crucifixion that was Farrell’s defence getting filleted by the All Blacks at the World Cup.
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A lot of road must be travelled before the new Ireland coach genuinely gets away from that lingering stink. That process starts with the need for him to bag back-to-back home wins next month versus Scotland and Wales, the rivals who were all answers and explanations on Wednesday when declaring their hands in Edinburgh and Cardiff.
With Farrell alternatively limiting queries about Ireland’s squad to in-house IRFU TV ahead of next week’s official tournament media melee in London, RugbyPass delves into some of the minutiae regarding the squad chosen.
Shaking up selection…
Thirty days is a long time in rugby. It was December 16 when Farrell announced a 45-strong post-World Cup stocktake, a mini pre-Christmas camp that took place in Dublin. Just over four weeks later, some of those initially picked learned the hard way how quickly you can fall off a list that is now down to 35.
Joey Carbery and Quinn Roux at least had the solace that injury shunted them out of the reckoning, but others such as Stuart McCloskey and Rhys Ruddock, a regular captain during the Schmidt era for matches versus the lesser nations, will be bruised at getting cut loose. You would have particularly felt McCloskey was someone who could really benefit from being under Farrell’s wing, given the coach used to play that midfield role himself as a Test player.
The season of goodwill didn't apply across the board in Ireland on Monday as new coach Andy Farrell only met with media handpicked by the IRFU rather than accommodating all media
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 24, 2019
Other frustrated souls will be Jean Kleyn, Schmidt’s controversial World Cup inclusion at the expense of the shabbily treated but now recalled Devin Toner, and Niall Scannell, the hooker who had been back-up to the now-retired Rory Best throughout 2019, featuring in nine of the 14 matches.
Caolin Blade, Jamison Gibson-Park, Mike Haley, Rory Scannell and Marty Moore are the others to disappear off the radar, but Farrell’s selection encouragingly acknowledged the recent form of two inclusions from outside the loop, Jack McGrath and Jack O’Donoghue.
Their elevation is promising in the sense that Ireland could do with a dose of fluidity to help keep players on the toes and have them aware they cannot take anything for granted. It is an attitude badly needed after the desultory stale way 2019 panned out.
Nurturing the next wave…
While it was all about favourites when it came to actual team selection, Schmidt made it a habit of allowing youngsters to be in and around the Ireland squad. Linking up the national under-20s squad was a preferred method, but Farrell has interestingly designated the selection of four additional picks as development players who will train with the seniors in the fortnight leading into the opening match versus Scotland on February 1.
The tactic ensures that young Will Connors, chosen in the December 45 but not in Wednesday’s 35, can continue his apprenticeship without feeling he has been dropped.
Ryan Baird, Robert Baloucoune and Harry Byrne, the younger brother of Ross, are the other three who should benefit from a whole heap of insight before switching back to their provinces for some February Guinness PRO14 action. With just four teams to pick from, development must be at the heart of the national team strategy, so empowering young guns with the knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise receive is positive.
The curveball in all this well-intentioned stuff, though, is the inclusion of 21-year-old Tom O’Toole in the main squad. He hasn’t started in all that many league games with Ulster and has yet to do so in Europe, yet he has jumped the queue ahead of provincial colleague Moore and Munster’s John Ryan, who was at the recent World Cup.
Although Drogheda-born, he appears to be a pet project of high-performance boss David Nucifora as he grew up in Brisbane and came to the IRFU’s attention after making the Queensland Reds development and Queensland schoolboys sides in 2015. How the novice settles in at Test level will be intriguing.
Overall, Farrell’s dalliance with youth most be genuine and not a superficial gimmick. He has to trust in fresh talent and not repeat the slapdash situation that was the inexperienced Jack Carty being handed a first competitive Test start at the recent World Cup after a four-year cycle to prepare.
Captain Sexton is a risk…
It was early October in Kobe when Johnny Sexton became the 106th player to captain Ireland. Farrell claims this was the week that convinced him the veteran out-half should be his chosen one to lead the team on a permanent basis in 2020.
If so, you’d have to hope that what Sexton did in the private in the Japanese coastal city is what has got him the responsibility as Ireland were desperately lethargic that Thursday evening under his baton under the enclosed stadium roof, leading by a meagre 21-0 before out-half gave way at the interval.
What will be a massive issue for Sexton to handle – aside from being far too injury prone and too old with the 2023 World Cup in mind – is his communication with the referees on Ireland’s dance card in the coming weeks, Mathieu Raynal (vs Scotland), Romain Poite (vs Wales), Jaco Peyper (vs England), Nic Berry (vs Italy) and Wayne Barnes (vs France).
Ireland’s No10 often been involved in testy exchanges with officials so how he copes now that he is the skipper will be closely scrutinised. Ex-captain Best had a certain charm in the way he went about talking to referees and it is something Sexton needs to take on board.
Of course, this risk could have been been negated altogether if Farrell went for broke and appointed the Paul O’Connell-like James Ryan as captain. Now that would been a bold long-term statement for the 2023 World Cup.
Portugal in the sun…
Farrell will be hoping preparing for a match in Portugal doesn’t become a bad omen. It was last August when Ireland jetted to London from an Iberian warm-weather camp to get badly exposed by England in a World Cup warm-up, the embarrassing defensive cave-in a premonition of what was to transpire some weeks later versus the All Blacks in Tokyo.
Ireland’s Six Nations plan is to have a week preparing in Quinta da Lago before heading back to Dublin a few days before their opener at home to Scotland. The new boss will have his fingers firmly crossed that this latest preparatory stint in the sun doesn’t lead to a repeat of the disaster that took place at Twickenham.
His selection will be critical… namely, who is best placed to take over from Best, what can be done to energise the tame back row, does Conor Murray deserve to hold on at No9 (a player on a central contract has no divine right to play when outperformed by a non central contract player) and what is the most potent midfield combination? They’re big questions needing big answers. Over to you, Andy.
The RugbyPass 23 to face Scotland
15. Jordan Larmour; 14 Andrew Conway, 13. Robbie Henshaw, 12. Bundee Aki, 11. Jacob Stockdale; 10. Johnny Sexton, 9. John Cooney; 1. Cian Healy, 2. Ronan Kelleher, 3, Tadhg Furlong, 4. Iain Henderson, 5. James Ryan, 6. Peter O’Mahony, 7. Josh van der Flier, 8. Max Deegan. Reps: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Dave Kilcoyne, 18. Andrew Porter, 19. Ultan Dillane, 20. CJ Stander, 21, Conor Murray, 22, Billy Burns. 23. Keith Earls.
WATCH: Andy Farrell talks Ireland selection and captaincy
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