Whenever the tenure of a new head coach begins, such as it does with Andy Farrell and Ireland this week, the identification of a new spine to build the team around is very rarely far from the discussion.
Generally perceived as the hooker, No 8, scrum-half, fly-half and full-back, the ‘spine’ could also be broadened to include a lineout-calling second row and the captain of the side, should their position fall outside of those central positions.
For former assistant and now head coach Farrell, this weekend’s Guinness Six Nations fixture against Scotland, his first in sole charge of the Ireland team, gives an intriguing glimpse into his plans at those key positions.
Up front, long-time hooker and captain Rory Best has hung up his boots and in comes his former Ulster teammate Rob Herring. The Cape Town native is set to win his ninth cap for Ireland on Saturday and is the man immediately tasked with filling Best’s boots. On the bench, however, is Leinster talent Rónan Kelleher.
Kelleher, 22, is seven years Herring’s junior and it would not be surprising if he is the man that Farrell ultimately has his eye on as replacement for Best in the long-term. The St Michael’s College product has been in sublime form so far in the 2019/20 season and his consistency at the set-piece and underrated ability in the loose was key to Leinster’s fast start to the campaign, despite them missing so many players to their post-Rugby World Cup rest period.
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Herring will have an opportunity to show that this is his time, that his patience behind Best was not misplaced, whilst Kelleher, should he make his debut from the bench, also has a chance to show that this stage is not too big for him and the right move is to commit to him as starting hooker as soon as possible.
Moving back into the row and you have talismanic lock James Ryan. This is the time for Ryan, with Best having retired and Peter O’Mahony having to make do with a place on the bench, to show that he is the emotional leader of this forward pack, even if he is not the named captain.
Ryan has proven he is one of the best players in the world at his position and the next challenge will be maintaining that level of performance on the pitch whilst also taking on a more senior role within the squad and beginning to establish his leadership and potential captaincy credentials. It’s exactly the same evolution that England’s Maro Itoje went through a couple of years ago.
At No 8, it’s a debut cap for Leinster’s Caelan Doris, with the bruising back rower having been on a steep and fast trajectory to the senior side after impressing with the Ireland U20s. Put aside injuries to Jack Conan and Max Deegan for a moment, Doris is the real deal and more than deserving of his place at the base of the Irish scrum.
Doris is the confident ball-handling power carrier that Ireland have arguably missed since Jamie Heaslip was at the peak of his powers and whilst the likes of O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier all offer appetising skill sets of their own, Doris’ impact on Ireland’s attacking game plan is shaping up to be a significant one. He not only breaks the gain-line, he plays with composure beyond it.
Farrell has opted for consistency and experience in the key decision-making positions of scrum-half and fly-half, where Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton retain their places, with the latter taking on the captaincy role. This seems smart.
Excellent initiative from the Warriors https://t.co/zsQG7vF87E
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 28, 2020
There may be a fair level of discontent that John Cooney has to make do with a spot on the bench despite his scintillating form this campaign, but the fly-half door is not currently being knocked down behind Sexton. His Leinster understudy Ross Byrne is on the bench, whilst uncapped Billy Burns remains in reserve.
Both have played well so far this season, although you would struggle to make a case that they deserve to start over the veteran Sexton, unless as part of a transition plan, with Farrell eyeing Sexton’s departure from the international arena in the coming years. That said, Harry Byrne was recently included in the group as a development player, so it’s clear that Farrell does at least have one eye on the future.
Finally, we come to full-back, where versatile back three player Jordan Larmour is set to win his 22nd cap, potentially the first of a long spell that sees him lock down the 15 jersey. The electric back has bounced between full-back and the wing in his appearances to date, although it is he, not Will Addison, who has been given the first audition to replace the reliability and consistency of Rob Kearney as Ireland’s last line of defence.
And that’s what he has to prove. He has to show to Farrell that he can be that trusted and safe pair of hands at the back. No one who has watched even 30 seconds of Larmour’s play over the last couple of seasons doubts his attacking ability, which is there in spades. If he can deal with the contested aerial balls, make the one-on-one tackles in open field and kick intelligently, he has all the makings of one of the most influential players in world rugby.
The overall selection has had its critics, but the balance is nice. Too many changes and the team will struggle, creating an environment for younger players’ introduction to international rugby that is far from desirable. Don’t change enough and you waste valuable time with players who won’t be in the picture come the next Rugby World Cup.
Fast-rising stars Ryan and Larmour get the opportunity to further stamp their authority on the team, whilst Doris and Kelleher get their chances to impress. Herring’s presence shows that Farrell is not willing to throw caution to the wind and dump Kelleher in the deep end, and Murray and Sexton are going to help ensure that Ireland remain competitive against challenging opposition, despite the national side’s struggles at the Rugby World Cup.
Another day of upheaval at the London club https://t.co/yfErVjUR8u
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 28, 2020
Experienced options have been selected outside of the spine, suggesting that there is no chance of Farrell throwing the baby out with the bathwater following that less than impressive campaign, something which only further adds to the interest in how Doris and Kelleher cope at this level, in a side that certainly does not lack for ability.
Farrell is going to learn more about that pair, as well as Ryan as a leader and Larmour as an out-and-out full-back option, in this team than he ever would in a side that boasts five or six new faces and a host more debutants on the bench. England bounced back from a challenging 2018 to make the Rugby World Cup final and there’s no reason why Ireland can’t make a similar resurgence in 2020.
This isn’t a revolution, it’s an evolution.
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