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Brendan Fanning: 'Andy Farrell can't claim he picked this team on form - otherwise two men would have bigger roles'


Clearly the World Cup has not gone away entirely.

Eddie Jones dragged it back out and popped it on the table with his opening salvo at Fabien Galthié over the boys he’ll be sending over the top in Paris on Saturday. The inference is that the new France coach is selecting with a mind to 2023, when France host the next World Cup, rather than what’s directly in front of him: England. And that would be an England bringing, as Jones put it, "brutal physicality and intensity".

When Andy Farrell was showing us around the new IRFU facility in Abbotstown over Christmas, he volunteered that Jones would be one of the sounding boards he’d have on speed dial. We don’t know if they’ve spoken since then, but if they have you could imagine the older man doing his Alan Hansen impression, that you can’t win anything with kids.

Farrell has been around the top end of professional rugby in both codes long enough to have, perhaps, a unique understanding of how unforgiving it can be. So he was never going to put a pin in the calendar year 2023 and declare that to be his target. The goal is Scotland on Saturday. The bigger picture can be enlarged no further than the break in a fortnight when he will be drawing breath with two games played.

So if he was going to throw a novice into the mix for this week, then the starting point was to pad him out with experienced players. Thus Caelan Doris has CJ Stander, back in his best position at six, and Josh van der Flier either side of him, with Iain Henderson and James Ryan immediately in front. When Ronan Kelleher comes off the bench to win his first cap you’d imagine Devin Toner will either be on the field already, or coming on at the same time, with Peter O’Mahony also in the mix.

All of which makes sense. But Farrell can’t claim that form has been his North Star in plotting this journey. You wouldn’t say try-scoring is the sole criterion in selecting your scrumhalf, but if those stats are good then it’s a handy guide to where he’s at in his head.

With nine tries this season, John Cooney is a happy man. Not as happy as he should be, for his form deserves a starting spot instead of off the bench, but at least Conor Murray has moved on from the awful form that followed him around long after it became defensible to be picking him in the starting side. Seemingly, Murray has trained very well so far in the build-up to Saturday, but he’d need to translate that quick-time.

When Farrell was moving the names around the page it’s likely that a spine consisting of Rob Herring (first Six Nations start), Caelan Doris (uncapped), Cooney (first Six Nations start), Johnny Sexton (war veteran and captain) and Will Addison (first Six Nations start) looked a bit light on experience. And, like his mate Eddie Jones, he knows the value of experience.

If that was his thinking then he must have reversed at speed, opting to cushion Doris and take a rain-check on a couple of others. In that vein, he could have excluded Addison altogether on the basis that between Andrew Conway – well worth his starting slot – and Robbie Henshaw on the bench, he had all the bases covered. The problem with this is that two form players get left out: Cooney from the starting side and Addison from the matchday squad.

Yes, Addison has been knocked about a bit lately but what you end up with is a remarkably similar model to the one put on the road against Scotland in the World Cup. Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony are the only changes from that starting xv. If Farrell started with a clean sheet for this week then it’s uncanny how he ended up with an old one.

And if he is to stick to the new script, then it will be another blank page ahead of the Wales game – in which case Addison, Cooney and co will be back in the mix. Andy Farrell has narrow enough window in which to say that it's all about justifying your place. Either the team does well, and quickly, or you find yourself making excuses, or changes, or both.

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