Andy Farrell is only just into his new role as Ireland boss but it’s safe to say the former assistant already has his hands full ten weeks out from his maiden match, the February 1 Six Nations meeting in Dublin against Scotland.
The Englishman, who has never had to run the whole shooting match anywhere before in his coaching career, has massive footsteps to follow.
Joe Schmidt may have twice made a pig’s ear of grand Irish ambition to reach a first-ever World Cup semi-final, but he still departed as Ireland’s most successful coach ever.
His 73 per cent win ratio (55 wins in 76 outings) eclipsed the fortunes of his three immediate predecessors, the 63.1 per cent Eddie O’Sullivan (48 wins in 76), the 53.7 per cent Declan Kidney (27 wins in 53) and the 48.6 per cent Warren Gatland (18 wins in 38).
Now all eyes are on where Farrell, ambitiously contracted through to the 2023 World Cup, might ultimately wind up in this pecking order nearly 22 years after the last Englishman in charge of Ireland jumped ship a mere year into a staggering six-year deal.
(Continue reading below…)
Brian Ashton royally upset the natives with his attitude in not bothering to scout Irish-based players, preferring instead to watch the multitude earning their living in the Premiership at that time.
Times have very much changed since and with IRFU preference since the 2015 repatriation of Johnny Sexton being to only select Irish-based players, Farrell has been busy these past two weekends running the rule over the Irish provinces in Champions Cup action.
It’s a scouting scene that has been part of his remit since first coming under Schmidt’s wing in 2016. But now that he is doing it Ireland boss, players will hope he is taking a clean slate approach towards formulating his 2020 Six Nations squad.
RugbyPass sifts through the Ireland wreckage following a torrid night in Tokyo, an elimination that was promised would not be repeated after mistakes were identified in 2015https://t.co/VzQ9eGwBIl
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 19, 2019
A total of 72 Irish-eligible players – 40 forwards and 32 backs – started for the provinces across the opening two Champions Cup rounds. Here, RugbyPass runs the rule over them and suggests who on current form is potentially leading the race to fill the Test shirts for Farrell’s first outing.
FULL-BACK – Six starters
Will Addison (Ulster, 2 starts), Jordan Larmour (Leinster, 1 FB, 1RW), Mike Haley (Munster, 2), Darragh Leader (Connacht, 1), Matt Healy (Connacht, 1), Rob Kearney (Leinster, 1)
Does Farrell stick with Schmidt favourite Rob Kearney – 34 next March – or invest in younger, less experienced options with a view to the future. Kearney was polished in Leinster’s defensive win at Lyon, showcasing all his streetwise attributes in keeping the door shut, but if front-foot options are the preference, then Larmour, Addison and Haley should all be ahead of the Ireland veteran. Larmour retained an eye for manufacturing clean breaks, but the latter pair’s numbers were especially excessive. Addison made 180 metres from 37 carries and Haley clocked 193 metres from 29 carries across their two matches. Advantage – Haley
RIGHT WING – Four starters
Rob Lyttle (Ulster, 1), Dave Kearney (Leinster, 1), Andrew Conway (Munster, 2), Louis Ludik (Ulster, 1)
Connacht’s Australian John Porch is Irish ineligible while Ulster duo Lyttle and Ludik are names that haven’t registered with Ireland previously due to frequent injury and being too old respectively. Lyttle did do well at Bath in his sole outing, posting a reminder of his fleet-footedness, but in terms of consistency over two weekends, Conway stood out. At 28, he is in prime and his poacher’s instinct resulted in tries on successive Saturdays. Larmour’s yellow card in Lyon blotted his wing report card and while it was good to see the forgotten Dave Kearney show some form of old last weekend versus Benetton, he needs to start against the bigger opposition. Advantage – Conway
OUTSIDE CENTRE – Five starters
Luke Marshall (Ulster, 2), Garry Ringrose (Leinster, 2), Chris Farrell (Munster, 2), Bundee Aki (Connacht, 1), Tom Farrell (Connacht, 1)
Let go Frankenstein here: If you could marry the reliable tackling of Marshall – a dozen at Bath – with the elusiveness of round one hat-trick scorer Ringrose on the ball, you would have one heck of a No13 as one player’s weakness is the other’s strength. Marshall left a try behind against Clermont while Ringrose occasionally left the defensive door open, two missed tackles in each outing. His unnecessary blocking also cost Johnny Sexton the try that would have denied Lyon their losing bonus. Chris Farrell was consistent in his two starts, while Tom Farrell was the more attacking of Connacht’s two starters, scoring at Toulouse while carrying 36 metres and offloading twice in contrast to the well-marshalled Aki who managed just eleven metres and one offload versus Montpellier. No Advantage
INSIDE CENTRE – Five starters
Stuart McCloskey (Ulster, 2), Rory O’Loughlin (Leinster, 1), Rory Scannell (Munster, 2), Tom Daly (Connacht, 2), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, 1)
It was curious how the first weekend’s two best twelves, McCloskey and Scannell, encountered high profile errors in weekend two. McCloskey cheaply knocked-on when Ulster were queuing up for a second-half score while Scannell was left on his backside by try-scoring Finn Russell’s nut-meg in Limerick. Where McCloskey skillfully impressed more than other twelves, though, was in winning two turnovers and serving up three offloads. Missed tackles took the sheen off O’Loughlin’s round one effort, Henshaw provided great defensive stability for Leinster this weekend as well as good go-forward, while Daly’s high numbers on the ball versus Montpellier tapered away significantly in Toulouse. Advantage – McCloskey
LEFT WING – Two starters
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster, 2), Keith Earls (Munster, 2)
This position had the least contenders for Farrell to scout as Leinster’s James Lowe and Connacht’s Kyle Godwin are not Irish eligible. Neither Ulster match really suited wing play, yet Stockdale still grabbed headlines by snuffing out a Bath attack to preserve the win in the last act. Earls, though, was far more involved, breaking clear on four occasions and scoring in both his matches. Three offloads versus Racing also highlighted his handling nous. Advantage – Earls
Ireland player ratings on a World Cup night to forget versus New Zealand in Tokyohttps://t.co/U8IUeEhJwH
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 19, 2019
OUT-HALF – Six starters
Billy Burns (Ulster), Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Tyler Bleyendaal (Munster), Jack Carty (Connacht), Conor Fitzgerald (Connacht), JJ Hanrahan (Munster)
Sexton turns 35 next July when Ireland tour Australia, but showed no signs of slowing down the last two Saturdays. Only for Ringrose, he would have added a try in France to the one very happily celebrated in Dublin, and his tackle count – ten – especially stood out versus Lyon. However, as highlighted at the past two World Cups when Ireland were caught short in his absence, Test experience must be poured into alternatives. Uncapped Billy Burns was energetic but had kinks in his game, such as too many missed tackles at Bath. A similar description applies to JJ Hanrahan, another uncapped pivot. He did so many great things versus Racing, crowned by his excellent assist for Conway and landing the game-levelling touchline conversion, only to dramatically miss a drop goal at the death. He – like Burns and Jack Carty versus Montpellier – missed too many tackles. Connacht rookie Fitzgerald surprisingly didn’t look out of his depth. With a 35-metre carry and ten tackles, he impressed at Toulouse as did Bleyendaal in Swansea whose biggest obstacle continues to be week-to-week fitness. Advantage – Sexton
SCRUM-HALF – Four starters
John Cooney (Ulster), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Caolin Blade (Connacht)
Farrell’s philosophy just might be reflected in this position in the spring. Murray has long been in the world-class category for his pass and the calibre of box kicks, but Cooney and Blade possess an eagerness to carry and be less predictable. Whereas Murray managed seven metres off nine carries in two appearances, Cooney registered 84 metres off nine carries and Blade 80 metres off eleven carries. More tellingly, the pair scored two tries each. No wonder Blade is ahead of Kieran Marmion in the Connacht pecking order. McGrath, meanwhile, tackled well in Lyon. Advantage – Cooney
LOOSEHEAD – Six starters
Jack McGrath (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Jeremy Loughman (Munster), Denis Buckley (Connacht), Eric O’Sullivan (Ulster), Peter McCabe (Connacht)
With fellow RWC loosehead Dave Kilcoyne injured, the past two Saturdays showed Healy’s different strengths away from the set-piece. Versus Benetton, it was regular ball-carrying, and against Lyon, his tackling. He signed off on ten. The frustrations of his old club rival McGrath continued, Ulster’s signing lasting just seven minutes at Bath. O’Sullivan likes a tackle but must tidy up his set-piece. Munster’s Loughman had vastly contrasting Saturdays, an all-action try-scorer in Swansea and on the back foot in Limerick. Connacht’s Buckley was immense with 18 tackles versus Montpellier, a presence that McCabe, his replacement in Toulouse, couldn’t replicate. Advantage – Healy
The Irish province got their latest Champions Cup campaign up and running against an easy on the eye Benetton on a day of mixed emotions for one family in D4https://t.co/XA7DO54mIT
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 16, 2019
HOOKER – Five starters
Rob Herring (Ulster, 2), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster, 2), Niall Scannell (Munster, 2), Tom McCartney (Connacht, 1), Dave Heffernan (Connacht, 1)
Rory Best’s retirement should have all the provincial hookers champing at the bit. As next man up in recent times under Schmidt, Scannell should be consistently pulling out top drawer performances but issues at the lineout and an inability to get across the gain line hampered versus Racing a week after he impressed at Ospreys. Similar can be said of Herring, his accuracy against Clermont not matching what he produced at Bath. Uncapped oldie McCartney won’t feature under Farrell, but his tackle count of 16 against Montpellier (he also scored a try) was immense and Connacht missed him at the lineout after going with Heffernan in Toulouse. The bolt from the blue, though, has been Kelleher. A rookie shouldn’t be this instantly consistent at this level but he has impressed, scoring versus Benetton and even contributing an offload in Lyon. Advantage – Kelleher
TIGHTHEAD – Five starters
Marty Moore (Ulster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Dominic Robertson-McCoy (Connacht), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
You have to imagine when February comes around, Ireland first-choice Furlong should be fully back up to speed and not missing the load of tackles he did in Lyon. Porter and Ryan have been Test back-up in recent times but might Moore, who lost favour with Schmidt when he moved to Wasps and was last capped in March 2015, be poised for a look-in? His efforts with Ulster were consistent, his tackle count of twelve at Bath especially positive, as was his scrummaging. Porter looked unsettled in his start versus Benetton while Ryan didn’t rise above the ordinary with Munster. Advantage – Moore
LH LOCK – Six starters
Iain Henderson (Ulster, 1LH, 1TH), Devin Toner (Leinster, 1), Jean Kleyn (Munster, 2), Cillian Gallagher (Connacht, 1), Alan O’Connor (Ulster, 1), Ultan Dillane (Connacht, 1TH, 1LH)
Second row is a bit complicated by Henderson switching from No4 to No5 between games and Dillane doing the reverse at Connacht, No5 one weekend to No4 the next. Dillane was a raging furnace in Toulouse, ratcheting up 18 tackles with a tenacity that Henderson had mirrored at Bath before being less influential versus Clermont. Toner, whose attitude has been excellent despite his RWC squad axing by Schmidt, was also full of tackles in his round one Leinster start, only to drop to the bench in Lyon to accommodate the Irish ineligible Scott Fardy. Kleyn, who usurped Toner’s squad spot for Japan, was a rugged presence for Munster. Advantage – Dillane
TH LOCK – Four starters
James Ryan (Leinster, 2), Billy Holland (Munster, 1), Quinn Roux (Connacht, 1), Tadhg Beirne (Munster, 1)
If Farrell is looking for one player to build his tenure around, it must be Ryan. A figure of 79 metres off eight carries in France on Saturday was phenomenal for a lock. Then again, everything he seems to do is phenomenal, accounting for eleven tackles in Lyon after 19 the previous Saturday. He is the complete player in this role, but others had their moments. Holland made 16 tackles in Swansea, Dillane 13 in Galway before switching to No4 this weekend to accommodate Roux who enjoyed three turnover wins in Toulouse, one more than Beirne versus Racing. Advantage – Ryan
BLINDSIDE – Six starters
Matt Rea (Ulster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Paul Boyle (Connacht), Sean Reidy (Ulster), Eoghan Masterson (Connacht)
What is going on with O’Mahony at Munster? Getting on the ball was never his thing but tournament statistics claim he has made 50 metres from 19 carries, aside from contributing in the usual dominant areas of his game such as 17 tackles across two matches and three turnovers wins at Ospreys. Seventeen tackles, mind, was what Masterson managed in one outing in Toulouse after taking over from Boyle who excited with 32 metres in the carry in Connacht’s win over Montpellier. Ulster’s blindside duo were like for like, while Ruddock’s workrate for Leinster was exhaustive. Advantage – O’Mahony
OPENSIDE – Four starters
Jordi Murphy (Ulster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Jack O’Donoghue (Munster)
After a World Cup where Ireland were crying out for back row ball carriers, another whose numbers ballooned on provincial duty was van der Flier. Tackling remained very much his forte, with 38 across two games, but he also made 67 metres off 11 carries, including the gallop that assisted Max Deegan for his try in Lyon. Ulster’s Murphy also motored, managing 42 metres versus Clermont as well as some valuable turnover wins. Test rugby might beyond O’Donnell at this stage but he remained Munster’s most impactful openside compared to O’Donoghue. Connacht don’t feature here as Colby Fainga’a isn’t Ireland eligible. Advantage – van der Flier
NO8 – Four starters
Caelan Doris (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), Robin Copeland (Connacht), Max Deegan (Leinster)
Safe to say, Stander likes getting his hands on the ball. There were 47 carries on successive Saturdays but he could do with evading the odd contact. His metre count total was 77, but a 28-metre gain from 24 carries versus Racing highlighted how tough the going was in Limerick. Try-scoring Deegan was excellent in Lyon, his 16 tackles and two turnover wins showing he is no slouch in a position he started in after last week’s unfortunate injury to the upcoming Doris, whom he replaced early at the RDS. Copeland’s biggest issue continued to be consistency, a huge shift versus Montpellier clouded by less prominence at Toulouse. South African Marcell Coetzee meant no Irish presence at No8 in Ulster. Advantage – Stander
WATCH: RugbyPass went behind the scenes with the Tonga national team as they prepared for the 2019 World Cup in Japan
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now