Andy Farrell has shown his hand ahead of this month’s resumption of the Six Nations, as Ireland go into their back matches against Italy at home on October 24 and away to France a week later knowing two bonus-point wins will secure them the title.
Having emerged from Joe Schmidt’s slipstream, the three-game-old Farrell era opened last February with home wins in Dublin over Scotland and Wales before alarm bells sounded with the comprehensive Triple Crown defeat to England in London.
A half-dozen players who featured in that sobering loss have not made the 35-strong squad chosen for the tournament’s resumption.
Most of those absences are attributed to injury but there are some feel-good developments as well with the including of a half-dozen uncapped players. Here, RugbyPass nominates three biggest winners and three biggest losers from the latest Farrell Ireland pick.
LOSERS – Devin Toner, Johny Cooney, Tadhg Furlong
Devin Toner: There was so much warmth at the start of the year when Farrell recalled the long-serving row to the Ireland set-up. Many fans felt the Leinster lock was shabbily treated by Schmidt, World Rugby’s new director of rugby and high performance, when axed for the World Cup in Japan and his return proved popular in the opening games at a jam-packed Aviva Stadium.
The 34-year-old came unstuck at Twickenham, however, and his issues against opponents such as Maro Itoje were repeated in last month’s Champions Cup loss to Saracens. Clubmate Ryan Baird, one of the uncapped six inclusions, is a very exciting nod to the future, but Toner’s current place in the pecking order is amplified by Quinn Roux’s inclusion.
John Cooney: With so many supporters feeling frustrated with Ireland’s box-kicking tactics marshalled by Conor Murray, there was quite a campaign last winter to get the Ulster scrum-half into the Ireland equation after he missed the World Cup.
It worked. Cooney earned caps off the bench in all three Ireland games so far under Farrell. However, his form has dipped post-lockdown and after finding himself benched for last month’s PRO14 final, he is now also out of the Ireland loop.
He’s not alone in that situation. Luke McGrath, Schmidt’s favoured back-up to Murray, is also excluded with the uncapped Jamison Gibson-Park, the Kiwi who qualifies under residency, and Kieran Marmion called in to challenge Murray who has recently been nursing a thigh injury.
Tadhg Furlong: The backbone of the Ireland pack was missed by Leinster last month, their scrum enduring a torrid time in the loss to Saracens. Every week there was a suggestion in his club’s injury update that he was close to a return from a back problem but that wasn’t the case and he will now see him miss Ireland’s Six Nations title bid due to what has become a calf issue.
The onus will be on clubmate Andrew Porter to fill the void and it will be a tall order given how Furlong would be in the conversation for 2021 Lions selection if fit after starring in 2017 while Porter is still coming of age at Test level. Without a match since last February, Furlong won’t like leaving it too long before getting back into the swing of things as this 2020/21 year should be culminating in a trip to South Africa for him provided he is healthy.
Stuart McCloskey: The Ulster midfielder has always been a RugbyPass favourite for his ability to challenge the gain line and offer offloads to try and add tempo and create space. The 28-year-old only ever won three caps under Schmidt, whose more conservative-minded approach frowned on players not protecting the ball and offering up turnovers, but Farrell appears to be in the mood to tease out alternative approaches to Ireland’s attack.
Hopefully, he now has the confidence that his face does fit at international level and he can question the usual midfield four consisting of Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell. A big training week awaits next week.
Shane Daly: Amid so much commentary about Munster’s predictability under Johann van Graan, the emergence of the 23-year-old is a hopeful sign that the province can come up with a different threat and start better challenging opposition.
Daly, who tweaked a groin in a recent Munster A-team friendly, didn’t look out of place in the resumption of the 2019/20 PRO14 and while wing colleague Keith Earls is absent through injury, Andrew Conway will be a useful confidante in helping the youngster transition from club to country to try and put pressure on Jordan Larmour after he took over the No15 shirt from Rob Kearney.
Ed Byrne: The uncapped 27-year-old loosehead is a name few if any would have considered for an international call-up but with Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne out of the equation through injury, a door had opened for someone to step up and provide cover behind Cian Healy.
Byrne didn’t have the best of times coming off the Leinster bench in last month’s European loss, conceding some penalties that sucked the momentum from his team’s unsuccessful second-half comeback, but his section of the front row is one area where Ireland don’t have extravagant riches and it will be very interesting to see how he fits in.
6??rookies included, 5 from Leinsterhttps://t.co/wNM8oryaJT
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 8, 2020
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