Cian Tracey: 'Return to form of Will Addison and Devin Toner brings welcome Six Nations headache for Andy Farrell'
There were high-fives and hand-shakes aplenty for Andy Farrell as he made his way through the Thomond Park crowd en route to the exit door on Saturday night.
The new Ireland head coach did his best to take his leave as discreetly as possible, but his hulking frame is not easily missed, and in the season of goodwill there were plenty of well wishes from the Munster supporters.
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Farrell left early to avoid the mass exodus, but had stayed long enough to see Joey Carbery successfully make his return from an ankle injury, and while several younger players impressed, it was a veteran lock who often stood out from the rest.
From Farrell’s perspective, it has been a successful inter-pro series thus far and although he will have hoped to have seen more from Connacht, there is still time to catch the eye as we head into the final round of this particular block of derbies.
Word has it, the first mini Ireland training camp under the English man’s watch was a success as the 45 players involved welcomed the freshness of the whole thing.
After their visit to the IRFU’s new base at Abbotstown, the players left with a pep in their step and eager to ensure that they are back there in the new year when preparations for the Six Nations begin to ramp up.
The majority of the big guns, who have been given the last fortnight off, are expected to be recalled this weekend as the provinces fine-tune their game-plans ahead of the climax of the Champions Cup pool stages.
Farrell will be on the road again as he takes in Ulster’s clash with Munster on Friday night as well as Connacht’s visit to Leinster the following day.
Some players have already firmly put their hand up, while for others, this will be another real chance to impress against their Irish rivals.
Rob Kearney’s omission from Ireland’s training squad was the clearest indication yet that Farrell is eager move on from some of the old guard.
The common consensus is that Jordan Larmour will become the next first-choice full-back, yet Will Addison will surely have something to say about that particular debate.
Addison was back to his brilliant best against Connacht last Friday as his dazzling footwork was mixed with some smart defending.
The 27-year old has had his injury problems over the last 12 months which has stalled his progress somewhat and then when he picked up an untimely suspension recently, it set him back even further.
He is however, used to making up for lost time and his outstanding performance won’t have gone unnoticed by the Ireland coaching staff.
The 95 metres off 22 carries, as well as five defenders beaten and three clean breaks are the kind of numbers Larmour has regularly been racking up in Europe of late.
Having two such devastating counter-attackers should have Ireland’s new attack coach Mike Catt purring with excitement.
Kearney has provided outstanding service over the years, but that has never been a strength of his.
That said, he only has to look across the Leinster dressing room at his fellow 33-year-old to see how quickly someone can bounce back from the brink.
As he has done since he was overlooked for the World Cup, Devin Toner continues to make a mockery of his non-selection.
While supporters will be keen to start afresh in the Six Nations, Farrell will find it hard to ignore the form of Toner, who is arguably playing better than ever.
There are few Irish locks, if any, playing as consistently well as the Meath man right now, which is why Munster were so often spooked when they saw him in the lineout on Saturday.
Toner showed immense leadership qualities in the engine room and went 80 minutes as if to prove a point that his fitness is not an issue either.
Nick McCarthy will still be having nightmares of Toner’s hulking frame as he repeatedly nullified the kicking threat of his former team-mate.
Ross Byrne had no such issues on the other side as the Leinster out-half once again went about his business in an utterly controlling manner in what were testing windy conditions.
Add in the impressive shift of Jack O’Donoghue as well as young guns Will Connors, Caelan Doris, Fineen Wycherley, Jack O’Sullivan, and Farrell will have been pleased by what he saw from the coming generation.
He will barely have his feet under his new desk before he faces big decisions over the coming weeks, but right now, Farrell will gladly welcome these kind of selection headaches as the Six Nations looms large.