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Predicting Farrell's first Ireland team

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This is the team Andy Farrell should pick for his first game as Ireland head coach

This weekend Ireland finally move on from the Joe Schmidt era when Andy Farrell takes charge of his first game as head coach, as Scotland visit Dublin in the opening round of the 2020 Six Nations.

When Farrell was announced as Schmidt’s successor in late 2018, he could hardly have imagined how drastically the job description was about to change. After a hugely successful 2018 campaign which included a Grand Slam, a first series win in Australia since 1979 and a first ever home win against the All Blacks, Ireland were a shadow of themselves in 2019.

A hugely disappointing Six Nations was followed by yet another demoralising quarter-final exit at the World Cup.

Now, Farrell finds himself with a rebuilding job on his hands.

While the majority of his squad are not yet past their sell-by date, there is no doubt that Farrell needs to shake things up in a bid to move things forward. In order to do this, he has some big decisions to make.

Farrell will name his team for the Scotland game on Tuesday, two days earlier than Schmidt’s team announcements, as he looks to get Ireland back on track following a season to forget. Here, we break down the big calls and select the starting XV that Farrell should pick as Ireland look to kick off this new era on a positive note.

FULL-BACK: Jordan Larmour
One area where we are guaranteed to see a changing of the guard, with veteran full-back Rob Kearney deemed surplus to requirements. Farrell seemed to make his mind up on Kearney quickly, as the Leinster man wasn’t even invited to the mid-season squad ‘stocktake’ before Christmas, where Farrell held his first mini-camp with his players since succeeding Schmidt as head coach.

Larmour is the clear favourite to make the step-up to first choice, with his inclusion against Scotland only threatened by the foot injury sustained in Leinster’s Champions Cup defeat of Benetton. If fit, he’ll get the jersey. Otherwise Farrell is likely to go with Will Addison, who has been in superb form for Ulster since returning from a four-week suspension at Christmas. Both will bring some welcome attacking flair to the position.

WING: Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale
Earls and Stockdale rarely found their positions under threat under Schmidt, and while Farrell will no doubt look to increase competition in the position he could stick with the tried and tested against Scotland. Stockdale didn’t enjoy the greatest 2019 but has enough ability to keep his place and remains Ireland’s most important attacking force.

Earls’ big advantage is his experience, and in particular the defensive nous which Stockdale is still only developing.

Munster’s Andrew Conway couldn’t be doing much more to put himself in the mix, but with Farrell likely to tinker with his team in other areas, he may place a greater emphasis on keeping Earls’ experience in the backline, particularly given Kearney’s absence.

CENTRE: Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw
Ringrose may not have entered the World Cup as a first choice centre, but he comes into the Six Nations as Ireland’s form man in the position. There are still some question marks over the defensive side of his game, but Ringrose is a glorious player with ball in hand and simply has to play. Beside him, it’s a tight call between Robbie Henshaw and the ultra-durable Bundee Aki, but the fact that Henshaw plays with Ringrose week-in-week-out at Leinster may tip the balance in his favour.

The one thing about Ireland’s midfield in recent years is that Schmidt rarely had Ringrose, Henshaw and Aki all fit for selection. Expect to see the faces in these jerseys switch around as the tournament progresses, with Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey also pushing for a place in the match-day squad.

SCRUM-HALF: John Cooney
The biggest call facing Farrell. Conor Murray was once undroppable for Ireland, and while he’s not been playing badly for Munster since returning from the World Cup, Cooney is arguably the form scrum-half in Europe.

The Ulster man has lifted his game to a new level this season and could not be doing more to argue his case. Not only does he do all the basics right, he has made a habit of producing moments of magic in big games.

Also, given how often Sexton has found himself unable to kick during Ireland games, Cooney’s reliability from the tee is a handy bonus. At 29, Cooney is just one year younger than Murray, but has won just eight caps, 70 less than the Munster man.

Should Farrell place his trust in Cooney, it would be a real statement of intent. Given his outstanding form, he deserves his shot.

OUT-HALF: Johnny Sexton
With Joey Carbery suffering another untimely injury, there is not much of a choice here for Farrell.

Ross Byrne is a fine deputy for Sexton, and probably hasn’t got his fair share of chances at international level, but Sexton remains first choice and is expected to be fit to make his first appearance since December after recovering from a knee ligament issue.

The fact that Farrell named him as his new captain underlined the 34-year-old’s importance to the cause. Sexton isn’t going away anytime soon, and until Carbery is back fit and firing, the jersey is his.

FRONT-ROW: Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong
Another area where change is guaranteed given the retirement of Rory Best.

Kelleher made a blistering start to the season with Leinster but an ill-timed hand injury has left him sidelined since early-December. The young hooker offers a dynamic threat on the ball and if he can prove his fitness then Farrell will surely be tempted to give the 21-year-old his shot. If not, Ulster’s Rob Herring is best placed to step into Best’s shoes.

Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong will both be expected to continue at loosehead and tighthead respectively, but for the first time in quite a while, both are under pressure to keep their place.

Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne was making a move for Healy’s shirt in the lead-up to the World Cup before injury set him back, and is a stronger ball-carrier than both Healy and the revitalised Jack McGrath.

Furlong has also struggled to reach his usual world-class standards, and Leinster team-mate Andrew Porter will be hot on his heels.

A nice headache for Farrell, who has no shortage of options when it comes to the front row.

SECOND-ROW: Iain Henderson and James Ryan
Ryan is nailed on to start, and some felt he deserved to be handed the captaincy on a full-time basis ahead of Sexton. It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 23, and has a long way to go in terms of his own development.

Andy Farrell did the right thing in recalling Devin Toner following his World Cup omission, and while the towering Leinster lock has been in good form since that snub by Schmidt, it would be a surprise if Farrell dropped Henderson.

That said, as good as the Ulster man can be, there is a feeling he can deliver more at international level. There’s a reason he failed to cement his place in the team under Schmidt. Henderson won’t turn 28 until the end of February, and a big Six Nations would set him up nicely to take ownership of the position under Farrell.

With Ultan Dillane in fine form for Connacht and pushing for a place on the bench, Toner’s return to the international fold could result in more pain.

BACK-ROW: CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris
Another area which Farrell has some huge calls to make. Josh van der Flier is probably the only man not looking over his shoulder at the moment, and should start at openside.

After that it’s hard to know what Farrell will be thinking. For all his leadership and lineout value, Peter O’Mahony isn’t doing enough in general play to guarantee his place in the team. Likewise CJ Stander, but the key difference is that Stander at least offers security on the ball. His capability of winning the hard yards is hugely valuable, particularly in tight games.

Doris is yet to be capped, but has been outstanding for Leinster this season and is another young player who will be hard to overlook. If Farrell is picking on form, Doris can’t be ignored. Accommodating Stander at blindside would allow Doris to slot in at Number 8. At just 21, it would be a baptism of fire, but Doris has shown enough to warrant his inclusion.

The Ireland team Farrell should pick:

Larmour; Earls, Ringrose, Henshaw, Stockdale; Cooney, Sexton; Healy, Kelleher, Furlong; Henderson, Ryan; Stander, van der Flier, Doris.

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This is the team Andy Farrell should pick for his first game as Ireland head coach
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