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Ireland's form versus experience debate

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Form is temporary, class is permanent: What Ireland's first two games tell us about the debate

Andy Farrell’s first two Ireland team selections added to the longstanding debate in Irish rugby about selecting players on current form rather than past performance. Conor Murray, in particular, raised questions, given that his squad rival, Ulster’s John Cooney, has been one of the form players in Europe this season.

The first two performances put in by Farrell’s Irish team have added plenty of evidence to the debate. RugbyPass analyses what we can learn from them.

A balanced approach in selection

In the first game, CJ Stander was asked to start at blindside flanker, relinquishing his usual No 8 jersey so Leinster’s Caelan Doris, undoubtedly the form Irish player in the back row, could make his debut. Peter O’Mahony, Ireland’s usual blindside, was relegated to the bench. Neither Stander nor O’Mahony have been in particularly great form for Munster but both have been essential to Ireland in the recent past.

Elsewhere, Murray was selected over Cooney but Rob Kearney, a previous Joe Schmidt stalwart, didn’t make the training squad at all, and Keith Earls, another regular starter, didn’t make the matchday squad. Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway, both in excellent form, were the men to benefit.

In the second match, Farrell took a similar approach. Doris was unavailable with concussion but Max Deegan, another form young Leinster player, was promoted to the bench. Garry Ringrose’s injury saw Robbie Henshaw come back into the side and out of form Keith Earls take the 23 jersey.

So, in terms of selection, Farrell opted for a mix of form and class in both games. He also gave us a useful number of players to analyse over two weeks.

How did they perform in the first round?

In the first round, against Scotland, Doris had the misfortune to go off with concussion after 5 minutes, bringing O’Mahony into the game very early. Stander was the official Man of the Match and put in an impressive performance after moving back into the No8 position. O’Mahony was also influential in a contest that was essentially won by Ireland’s better ability to adapt to the referee’s interpretation at the breakdown.

Class, as they say, is permanent.

On the other side of the debate, Larmour and Conway impressed, bringing their provincial form into the match and adding a new spark to Ireland’s attack, one that they sorely lacked in Japan during their ill-fated World Cup campaign. If Ireland are to add more to their attack, you suspect these two will be an important part of it.

One in the column for form, then.

In the middle, there was Murray, who was neither the best nine in the world, like his old self nor the washed-up player many argue he has become. He got the job done.

Taking it up a level in Round 2

Ireland’s performance against Scotland in the first round was a stuttering start that relied heavily on their back row. Their second match under Farrell was a far more impressive victory, over a strong Wales side coming off the back of a 42 point thrashing of Italy.

Ireland were physical and uncompromising but also showed much more imagination in attack. Every player performed well. 

For the second week in a row, Stander was the official Man of the Match. O’Mahony was everywhere, particularly infuriating Wales captain and talisman Alun-Wyn Jones. Earls, who came on early in the second half for the excellent Henshaw and had to step in at outside centre, a position he plays less frequently, was very assured. He put in one absolutely perfect pass to Larmour, having adjusted well to take the ball in the first place.

The form players, Conway and Larmour, were even better than last week, with Conway in particular having an outstanding game.

The leaves Murray, who is arguably at the centre of this debate. He was still not quite back to his old self but he more than justified his selection in Round Two, bossing his pack around well, getting the ball out crisply and quickly, and kicking well. Among all that there were some truly lovely passes.

The golden mean?

With everyone playing it well, it might seem difficult to use that game as evidence for the form vs class debate. But that’s looking at it the wrong way. It was the combination of form players and trusted stalwarts that led to such a strong performance. 

In both matches, the experience of players like Murray, O’Mahony, and Stander allowed them to quickly understand how the referee was going to manage the game and where they would be able to stray into grey areas, especially with the breakdown. In both games, the breakdown was crucial to Ireland’s success. For all the talent that Deegan and Doris have shown this season, they might not have been able to adapt in the same way at this level.

There is also no doubt that, in 2019, it felt like Ireland’s attack had stagnated. Freshening that up with the undoubted exciting talent of Conway and Larmour at the back added a balance to the team.

That’s the crucial word: balance.

In the first match, Farrell had opted for a new hooker, Rob Herring, after the retirement of Rory Best, a new number eight in Doris, and a new full back in Larmour. If you consider the spine of the team, it made perfect sense to keep Murray in the No 9 jersey for some balance and continuity.

The same was true in the second game, even without Doris. Wales were Grand Slam champions and three points away from the RWC final last year. Too much tinkering with selection would have been very risky. As it was, Farrell tinkered just enough.

There is certainly an argument that Joe Schmidt didn’t tinker enough to achieve this balance, trusted the class of his experienced players to come through, even when it didn’t. But that doesn’t mean an over-correction is in order now.

There are some players, moreover, who are able to raise themselves for international matches despite their form. Sam Warburton rarely played as outstandingly well for Cardiff Blues as he did so frequently for Wales, for example. 

In the debate over form players versus experienced performers, balance will always be key. Having talented newcomers push for a place keeps everyone on their toes to maintain their standards but the newcomers need to know they can earn a place. Throwing debutants in at the deep end in a tournament as intensely competitive as the Six Nations is always risky but so is letting the camp get stale with the same players.

So far, Farrell appears to be striking the right balance.

What does that mean for Cooney and the others?

That is not to say that Cooney doesn’t deserve a start, or that Deegan and Doris don’t deserve more chances. In Round Three, against England at Twickenham, they may have to settle for a bench spot again, biding their time. Round Four, against Italy at home, would seem to be the time for Cooney to get his start, at least.  

Farrell has already shown a willingness to break with certain aspects of his predecessor’s regime, naming his team early, relaxing the vibe in camp, and encouraging more ambition in attack. By the end of the tournament, this Ireland team might look quite different than the one who came back from the Rugby World Cup in Japan with their tails firmly between their legs, both in personnel and performance levels. If it does, it will be because of the balanced approach Farrell has taken. 

Watch: Eddie Jones warns against Six Nations expansion.

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Form is temporary, class is permanent: What Ireland's first two games tell us about the debate
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