The big winners and losers from Ireland's Six Nations campaign
Andy Farrell and his players can be forgiven if they are feeling a little bit smug this week. The message coming out of the Ireland camp following Saturday’s hugely impressive win over England was more or less, ‘We told you so.’
Over the course of 80 minutes against England, Ireland took an unconvincing Six Nations campaign and transformed it into a suggestion they are making some genuine progress. The picture looked far more bleak last month following the defeats to both Wales and France.
Farrell and Co. repeatedly argued that fine margins were the difference in those games, but a perceived lack of clarity in Ireland’s attacking game suggested otherwise.
They followed those losses up with a routine whipping of Italy before a nervy defeat of Scotland, teeing up an intriguing final round fixture with England, who had won the four previous meetings between the teams. Had they lost a fifth successive game to England, the pressure on Farrell would have really heated up.
Instead, Ireland delivered their best performance since that famous 2018 win over the All Blacks and with it set a new benchmark for the Andy Farrell era.
After five games that produced mixed performances, the head coach will now have a much clearer idea of his strongest squad.
Here, we look at the big winners and losers from Ireland’s Six Nations.
Farrell has tried a number of players at fullback since Rob Kearney departed the scene, but Keenan made the position his own over the course of a very impressive campaign. The 24-year-old has looked assured and commanding in the air – see his catch over the head of Elliot Daly on Saturday – while also running some good lines from deep.
Can still improve on his defensive game, but at this point the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Outstanding in both the back-row and second-row. The Munster man has been something of a bit-part player at international level, but has really grown on the Test stage after putting a run of games together in the starting team for the first time.
Produced a number of big moments and 10 of his trademark turnovers across Ireland’s five outings, but more impressive was his consistency from game to game. Beirne has brought huge work rate across the pitch and been a nuisance at the breakdown. Surely a shoe-in for the Lions.
Henshaw’s qualities were no secret but he’s taken his game to a new level over the past 12 months, and capped a superb Six Nations with an inspirational performance against England. At the moment, he’s arguably the form centre in European rugby.
Brings an infectious workrate and is one of the most dangerous attacking threats in this Ireland team, having used the lockdown period to work on his footwork. Also has a remarkable ability to dominate tackles against bigger opponents. One of the first names on Farrell’s team-sheet.
Came into the championship facing the usual scrutiny surrounding his age and durability, but silenced the doubters again. Missed the defeat to France due to a head injury, but that was the first Six Nations game he had sat out since 2018. Played the full 80 minutes in all three of Ireland’s wins and was instrumental against both Scotland and England, while boasting a 96% success rate off the tee, converting 24 of his 25 shots at the posts. Those are world class numbers.
The 35-year-old is well placed to head on the Lions tour this summer and could even be the starting 10, while closer to home, Joey Carbery looks the only player even remotely close to displacing him as Ireland’s first choice out-half.
Like Sexton, came into the tournament under some external pressure due to his age, which only heightened when he signed a new IRFU contract midway though the Six Nations. His superb performance against Scotland was a masterclass in defensive wing play, while the win over England highlighted the fact he can still offer plenty with ball in hand, too, scoring one excellent try and seeing another fine effort ruled out.
Ended the Six Nations as a guaranteed starter while receiving praise from the likes of Ugo Monye and Nemani Nadolo. They know a thing or two when it comes to quality wingers.
Like fullback, hooker has been up for grabs since Rory Best retired following the World Cup. While Herring offered experience and security in the position, there had been a growing clamour to get the more dynamic Rónan Kelleher into the team. However Herring’s performances over this Six Nations will have cemented his status as Ireland’s best hooker – for now at least. His lineout throwing was largely excellent and he backed that up with huge workrate off the ball.
While Kelleher offers more threat with ball in hand, Herring is nailing all the basics, something which provides far more value to the Irish team at this point in time. The jersey is his to lose.
Billy Burns/Ross Byrne
As Sexton was busy reinforcing his importance to the team, the squad’s other out-halves were left watching on from the sidelines for the most part. Burns entered the championship as Farrell’s preferred back-up, but his errors in the closing minutes against Wales totally overshadowed the few bright flashes he had. Started against France but came off injured and saw only nine minutes against Italy after that, dropping out of the squad to face England with an injury. Leinster out-half Byrne had an equally disappointing championship, which amounted to 38 minutes against France and a one minute cameo against England.
Both are fine players for their provinces but with Joey Carbery on the comeback and Harry Byrne progressing nicely with Leinster, the competition in the squad is only going to increase. Burns and Byrne will both look back on this tournament and feel they did not make the most of their limited opportunities to impress.
A Six Nations which unfortunately passed O’Mahony by, his red card against Wales all but ending his tournament. Came off the bench against England but ended the Six Nations with just 30 minutes of action to his name. Was in great form heading into the championship and a new two-year IRFU contract underlined his status in Irish Rugby, but he’ll have to fight his way back into the team, particularly if Farrell looks to keep Beirne at blindside to accomodate a second-row partnership of Iain Henderson and James Ryan. Will Connors also made a fine argument to continue at openside while Jack Conan signed off with his best game for Ireland at number eight.
You certainly wouldn’t bet against O’Mahony remaining a key player for Ireland going forward, particularly given his versatility in the back-row, but his absence in this tournament only served to further the case of those fighting for a jersey with him.
Big things were expected of Lowe but the Leinster man struggled with the step up from club to international rugby. His defensive errors became such an issue that it was no surprise to see him dropped from the matchday squad to play England. What is just as concerning however is the fact that Lowe’s attacking game never really got going, bar a disallowed try in the defeat to France, with Ireland often using him as a kicking option rather than a running threat.
He’s a hugely popular addition to the squad and his talent is obvious, but there is much improvement required if he is to force his way back into this team going forward.
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