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Being in form or your rugby CV - what is more important to Andy Farrell?

Brendan Fanning


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Conor Murray and John Cooney are in a selection battle for the nine jersey.. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Conor Murray and John Cooney are in a selection battle for the nine jersey.. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Conor Murray and John Cooney are in a selection battle for the nine jersey.. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Starters and finishers. It’s three years ago now since England brought added value to their squad announcement against Italy by identifying on their team-sheet the 'starters' and the 'finishers'.

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So Danny Care would get to stay on the field when the anthems were done while Ben Youngs would be along later to finish the job. Whether that meant putting pace into the game to get England over the line – a doubtful requirement against Italy – or calming things down and taking the heat out of the game, it was a new departure to refer to players in these terms on headed notepaper.

It didn’t catch on. At least not in Six Nations vocabulary. For a game that had become so attritional, however, the value of being able to introduce fresh legs had soared. As recently as the World Cup final you could see the effect of rolling on an entirely new front row. The sight of Stephen Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch coming off the bench, just four minutes into the second half, sucked the life out of England.


In Ireland’s case, Sean Cronin has been the ambassador for finishers, with all but 10 of his 72 caps coming off the bench. They weren’t all in the category of game-changing replacements, but with his stunning acceleration it made him very useful. Now, John Cooney is being looked at in the same light.

When Steve Hansen was changing Aaron Smith for TJ Perenara, it was obvious what the latter was bringing to the table: a very good all-round game which included, unlike Smith, the capacity to take fringe defenders on physically.

That was one of the things that marked Conor Murray out early in his career. When we first saw him in the AIL with Garryowen, he earned the respect of backrowers who knew he would he a handful if he carried. With Ireland he would become a defender who made a difference in broken play. By the time he had developed his kicking game to precision status he had become a world-class scrum-half.

You wonder if that status is the main criterion for Andy Farrell now in selecting his teams. Murray’s CV, from Ireland to the Lions, is heavyweight. He is a senior player, a major influence in the group. But his form is not on the same level. If you had parachuted into Lansdowne Road last Saturday to watch your first Ireland Test, you wouldn’t have gone away saying they have a pressing issue at nine. But if you were comparing the Murray of 2020 with the Chicago version, then his game has diminished.

Joe Schmidt recognised this but reckoned he didn’t have the personnel to make a change. Farrell now has that luxury, but seems set to use Murray as his starter and Cooney as his finisher. To be given 20 minutes is a lot better than popping your gum-shield in as the stewards are already in their end-of-match positions, so Cooney’s career is already in a better place under Farrell than it was under Schmidt. But if his form is also better than Murray’s – and it is, illustrated among other things by eight tackles in those 20 minutes against Scotland – then why not use him from the start?

It’s not as if you’d be falling off the edge of a cliff by bringing Murray on for the final quarter, rather you’d have the player in better form on the field for longer. Which makes sense. What seem less useful is the amount of time Cooney invests in trying to lure opponents offside.

Pre-tournament the coaches were given a run-down on adjustments their players needed to make to keep referees happy. The roll back of the ball at the back of the ruck is high on the hit list. Thankfully. So from the moment the scrumhalf makes contact with the ball to start the long, tedious drag back in order to box kick, refs are now in their ear, counting down, hurrying them up.

Cooney has developed this irritating habit of trying to drag opponents offside by feigning to pick the ball out from under the feet of the last man. It looks like a nervous tic at this stage. It’s also illegal. Rugby has a few laws that seem arcane nowadays but trying to induce your opponent offside in these circumstances isn't one of them. It’s only a matter of time before he gets picked up on it, and at what cost? And only a matter of time before he gets to start a big game in green.

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