The 5 key areas Ireland need to fix
Rob Kearney offered a little glimpse behind the Irish rugby curtain when he revealed head coach Andy Farrell has a penchant for strumming a few Oasis tunes on his guitar. One wonders what songs will pop into Farrell’s head if he picks up the six string before his squad reconvenes on Thursday following Saturday’s 35-27 defeat to France. Stop Crying Your Heart Out? Going Nowhere? Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Farrell certainly has plenty he can look back in anger about after a performance littered with costly individual errors and a distinct lack of ruthlessness.
The Ireland boss has only had five games in charge since succeeding Joe Schmidt so the days that will define his tenure are still ahead of him, but his immediate focus must be to ensure the gap between Ireland and teams like England and France doesn’t continue to grow.
These are five of the key areas which Farrell will look to fix after a Six Nations which ultimately stirred up far more questions than answers.
It’s never a good idea to place too much emphasis on a win over Italy, but the 50-17 thrashing handed down in Dublin ignited talk of a move towards a more open, heads-up style of rugby. Even Peter O’Mahony was dishing out sumptuous offloads.
Where was that in Paris? While France finished with 14 offloads, Ireland produced just three. The visitors were too narrow and struggled to bring their main attacking threats into the game.
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For a team not short on talent, that clinical edge just seems to be missing. Ireland spent four minutes and 25 seconds in the France 22 but their endeavour produced little reward. (France spent one minute, 39 seconds in the Irish 22). In the second period Ireland became more withdrawn and their territory dropped from 72% to 56%. Robbie Henshaw’s excellent solo effort was the only real evidence of an Ireland player taking initiative and trying to make something happen. No such problems for France. The half-back pairing of Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont sprinkled some stardust on the game with individual moments of magic, providing the gut-punches which took the wind out of Ireland’s title ambitions.
Ireland even looked unsure of what approach they should be taking. In the opening minutes Conor Murray was backed to take an ambitious pop at the posts from inside his own half. By the end of the half Ireland were opting to kick to the corner rather than take some handy points, a decision which didn’t pay off.
Overall France looked far more dangerous in possession. As did England when batting Ireland aside in February. As did New Zealand in last year’s World Cup quarter-final. As did Japan in the pool stages. In Paris, Farrell accepted where the problem lay: “There were six or seven tries in that game for us and we came away with three in the end.”
Ireland had their chances to win this game but didn’t take them. That can happen any team every now and then, but it’s happening Ireland too often when it matters most.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) November 1, 2020
Jacob Stockdale had a bad day against France, but that doesn’t mean he is finished as a fullback. Stockdale is well established in the team but is still learning the position. Before the games against Italy and France his 28 previous caps had all come on the wing. With Jordan Larmour unavailable for the Autumn Nations Cup and Will Addison still sidelined, Farrell is light on options and could use this window to get some more games into Stockdale at 15.
Another option would be to slot Hugo Keenan into fullback, freeing up a place on the left wing for the newly eligible James Lowe. Andrew Conway has bags of experience at 15, but his form for Munster over the last year would suggest he is best utilised out wide. Conway’s Munster teammate Shane Daly is also likely to debut over the next month.
There will be changes on the wing too. In Paris Ireland struggled to bring their wingers into play. Keenan and Conway found themselves on the periphery of the game and didn’t make a single clean break between them, beating a total of two defenders (both Keenan) and making only 31 meters between them. Compare that to France’s Gael Fickou, who made 47 meters and three clean breaks by himself.
Keenan and Conway are quality operators when used effectively, but Farrell’s options on the wing will open up across November. Lowe will debut at some stage in the next few weeks and Keith Earls should also be fit for selection. By the time the 2021 Six Nations rolls around the Ireland back three could look very different to the one that started both games against Italy and France.
Robbie Henshaw was clear in Ireland’s mission when speaking to the media last week: “It’s just to really go after it and not go into our shells.”
While Henshaw himself can’t be accused of not fronting up against France, the lack of confidence within the Irish squad is becoming an increasingly alarming issue. Farrell admitted Ireland “lacked belief” in Paris, and it’s not the first time that problem has been flagged.
Head coach Farrell’s men arrived in Paris still in sight of a fourth title in seven years, but departed empty-handed after a horror-show performance, especially in chance conversion.https://t.co/y7Qd2uD7fg
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Over the last two years Ireland have tended to fold into themselves when under pressure. Individual errors mount up and gaps start appearing in defence. Two such performances – the defeats to England and France this year – have come under Farrell’s watch. Paris followed an all-too familiar pattern. Passes didn’t stick, kicks were mis-cued and the lineout disintegrated when the heat came on. Romain Ntamack even remarked that the French players could sense panic within the Irish ranks.
Some pundits pointed to the greasy ball as a reason for Ireland’s inaccuracy. Of course France were playing with the same greasy ball, and the Irish players aren’t exactly strangers to a bit of rain.
Most of this Ireland team were rightly lauded for their exploits in 2018, but the confidence earned that year looks to have been completely evaporated. Restoring that self-belief will be near the top of Farrell’s to-do list. It won’t be a quick fix.
Leadership, or lack thereof
Johnny Sexton made headlines for the wrong reasons. There’s nothing wrong with a player being disappointed in coming off, especially with 12 minutes to play in an eight point game, but to look so annoyed with the decision – particularly when he’s had a glance at the big screen and is aware his reaction is being picked up by the cameras – is not a good look. It hardly would have done Ross Byrne’s confidence any favours as he entered the fray in place of the Ireland captain.
It also creates an unwanted sideshow going forward, and Farrell is going to find himself facing plenty of questions about Sexton over the next few weeks. Sexton is still Ireland’s best out-half and an inspirational figure to those around him, but as much as he doesn’t like the topic, he will be is 38 when the next World Cup rolls around.
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It’s fair to ask when the time will be right to look at changing the captaincy. Yet the more pressing question is who are Ireland’s other leaders on the pitch? As is so often the case, CJ Stander and James Ryan both fronted up to the physical challenge in France. Ryan’s workrate continues to amaze. The Leinster lock helped get Healy over the line under intense pressure, was Ireland’s top tackler (12) and made 15 runs, only bettered by Stockdale (16).
Too many others wilted in the heat of battle. Rory Best and Rob Kearney both had their detractors, but without them the starting XV has been stripped of 222 caps worth of experience. Other players need to start stepping up to fill that leadership void.
Bench impact, or lack thereof
When Ireland badly needed a lift their challenge fizzled out. Farrell’s replacements just looked so off the pace.
The Ireland boss won’t be short of material for the video review. Chris Farrell came in on 53 minutes and moments later his loose pass to Stockdale almost let the hosts in for a gift of a try. Ross Byrne won’t be happy with his contribution in the final 10 minutes either, while Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan both had their struggles with the lineout.
There was a lack of clarity peppered across the performance. At one point in the second half, when Andy Farrell had replaced the bulk of his pack, there appeared to be some confusion before a lineout call was settled upon. When a decision was finally reached they failed to execute the resulting set-piece. Ireland supporters could be forgiven for longing for the security of Devin Toner off the bench.
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This problem will hopefully fix itself as more players become available to Farrell in the coming weeks. Iain Henderson will be back from suspension in time for the Autumn Nations Cup opener against Wales, while Leinster’s dynamic lock Ryan Baird could also return from injury. Add to that the fact that Farrell went to Paris without Tadhg Furlong, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Dave Kilcoyne, Max Deegan, Ronan Kelleher and Will Addison. Joey Carbery’s return date still remains unclear while Dan Leavy recently made a welcome return to action following a long-term knee injury. You could argue that four or five of those players would walk straight back into the Ireland team.
Farrell will surely shake things up across the Autumn Nations Cup. What happened in Paris reinforced the fact that there are places up for grabs.
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