Monday 27 January 2020

Cian Tracey: 'Cooney and Larmour continue to catch Farrell's eye before first camp'


John Cooney remains the country’s most in-form player as for the third Champions Cup game running, he was Ulster’s match-winner. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
John Cooney remains the country’s most in-form player as for the third Champions Cup game running, he was Ulster’s match-winner. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Andy Farrell will make his final trip around the provinces this week before assembling an extended squad for his first training camp as Ireland head coach.

The usual pre-Christmas gathering, which takes place the weekend after next, will have an added bite as everyone looks to impress Farrell and his new-look backroom staff.

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The Six Nations is now just under two months away and while there is plenty of time left before Scotland arrive in Dublin on February 1, the players will want to hit the ground running in the short window.

Some of the senior players will be feeling the pressure more than most and not only because of their below-par performances at the World Cup, but because several fresh faces are continuing to press their claims.

Striking the right balance between selecting those in-form and helping others rediscover their best is a major challenge facing Farrell.

The Englishman has taken in plenty of games in recent weeks and will have been comforted by the lack of a World Cup hangover.

Leinster and Ulster maintained their 100 per cent winning starts to the Champions Cup, Munster won ugly to keep their hopes alive, while Connacht put in their most disappointing display of the season to leave them facing an early exit.

There have been standout performers throughout the opening three weeks of Europe, and given that most are not seasoned internationals, it will test Farrell's resolve come the spring. There is less pressure next week when he can name as many players as he likes, and as much as they want to get off on the right foot, so too do Farrell, Mike Catt and John Fogarty.

John Cooney remains the country's most in-form player as for the third Champions Cup game running, he was Ulster's match-winner. It's not just that Cooney (29) is pulling rabbits out of hats every week, but it's the manner in which he is doing so.

After a couple of consistent seasons, the scrum-half has taken his game to new heights. His moments of magic in the wins over Bath and Clermont were followed with a nerveless last-gasp penalty to beat Harlequins. Cooney's form is too good to ignore, especially when you compare it to Conor Murray, who has dipped below his consistent best.

It would be unfair to judge Murray on Munster's stodgy win over Saracens because the pack struggled to give him clean ball, but Cooney has certainly narrowed the gap.

If Cooney is top of the form table, then Jordan Larmour isn't far behind. This is the start of a new era for Irish rugby and Rob Kearney will not be around for the next World Cup in 2023. Therefore, Larmour must be considered strongly to start that Six Nations opener.

The changing of the guard is already well under way in Leinster where Leo Cullen has not been shy in selecting the 22-year-old ahead of the veteran for a couple of big European games this season. Larmour was at his dazzling best in the first half against Northampton on Saturday as he offered up another strong case for why he should be wearing the number 15 jersey in green and blue going forward.

A total of 112 metres for 11 carries, seven defenders beaten, four clean breaks and a try assist away from home against the Premiership leaders is seriously impressive.

Speaking of impressive numbers, Caelan Doris produced a real coming-of-age performance that added further weight to the feeling that he will be Ireland's next long-term No 8. The outstanding prospect (21) is really growing into himself and was hugely effective in the carry as 58 metres for 14 runs suggests.

Doris has some strong competition at Leinster, but he is the most naturally gifted No 8 at the club and is already being compared to Jamie Heaslip. Doris' ceiling is bigger.

Andrew Conway had one of his quieter outings against Saracens, but in the howling wind and rain, it wasn't exactly a night for wingers. That should not detract from the fact that he is the form winger in Ireland now, with Jacob Stockdale also catching the eye at full-back.

These are the kind of headaches that Farrell will welcome as opposed to the out-half scenario as he sweats over the fitness of Johnny Sexton (knee) and Joey Carbery (ankle) as well as the form of Jack Carty.

Under Schmidt's watch, the make-up of the pre-Christmas training squads were annoyingly kept under wraps, yet there is a new world order in place now.

How Farrell goes about the next few weeks will tell a lot about how much will change with him in charge.

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