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Farrell must add layers to Irish attacking game

Brendan Fanning


IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora. Photo: Sportsfile

IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora. Photo: Sportsfile


IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora. Photo: Sportsfile

The World Cup was barely over for Ireland when the review began to take shape. And when, a few weeks later, IRFU performance director David Nucifora briefed the media, a few things stood out.

First, he had to nudge Joe Schmidt close to the kerb as the bus was coming around the corner. Business is business, and with Schmidt already off the premises it was time to clear out some of the stuff he'd left on his desk. Ireland had needed to change their game. It didn't happen so the coach has to carry the can. Without extraordinary circumstances - such as the carnage that occurred in the 2015 World Cup pool game against France, hobbling Ireland for the quarter-final against Argentina - it was like night following day.

Second, he had to join the dots between Ireland not changing their attack and the idea that they didn't have the skill to pass the ball from A to B. Apart from Schmidt's utter conviction that he was right, this manifested itself in the clarion call that the provincial academies would be under pressure to improve their players' skills and the Lord save us if they didn't catch on fast. The image was of a battalion of IRFU troopers descending on the academies with cattle prods in hand, poking lads who dropped passes that needed to be caught.

Systems and conditioning are the bedrocks of the elite game in this country. It was instructive to read the comments of Tom Sexton on independent.ie last week, describing how he arrived - having been rejected by Leinster - to the Melbourne Rebels thinking his grounding in the fundamentals of the Irish game would carry him a distance. It didn't. Taken aback at their casual attitude to conditioning he was envious of their skills. So yes, skill development and learning to play unplanned rugby are more than useful exercises.

What we have seen from Andy Farrell's Ireland over the first two rounds of the Championship suggest they have not been recruited from the Edward Scissorshand family. They could even be capable of learning new tricks before this campaign is over. The mood music in the camp is that the layers they are putting down are fitting neatly on top of each other, and there is genuine excitement about what's ahead. We would contend that their close-game could do with being sexed up a bit, but they have made strides in getting wide, and largely their passing under pressure has been good. And they are winning.

That last bit may be what opens the conversation for Farrell with Caelan Doris. Rewind to his selection for the Scotland game, with CJ Stander moving to six. We interpreted this as a significant change of direction, which seemed fair enough. Stander's work-rate is highly valued, so shift him to six where Peter O'Mahony is hanging on. Doris is explosive and a decent footballer so playing him at eight was a statement. A short one, as it happened.

Two games later Doris is fit again. In the meantime, however, Stander has gone off on one of his man-of-the-match crusades, which has changed the picture again. Selection when you have decent resources is a tricky poem to recite. Farrell's detractors when he was part of the England set-up that bombed in the World Cup blame him for getting his lines wrong over the inclusion of League convert Sam Burgess. Depending on who you talk to this is either bang on the money or wildly exaggerated.

Either way, the head coach has to decide if what was a good idea a couple of weeks ago is still a good one: running Doris at eight. He has no further evidence one way or the other, aside from the training field. The situation has shifted dramatically thanks to Stander. It helps that Doris is only 21 and has less than five minutes Test experience to his name. For now, park yourself on the bench son.

Conor Murray has massive support from his teammates, and that kind of thing will count for a lot with the coach. It's hard to see, however, why a player in better form, whatever about the gaps on his CV while Murray was establishing himself as one of the best in the business, is coming off the bench instead of starting the game.

Robbie Henshaw will be fit to continue a profitable partnership with Bundee Aki, but Will Addison is struggling for fitness. He was fast-tracked into the Ireland squad last summer the moment he had recovered from back surgery, but staying fit seems to be eluding him. When left out of the Scotland squad he wasn't listed as banjaxed, rather he was being "minded", we were told, but Farrell needs him available asap. Twickenham, and a desperate England, looks like being too soon. Hopefully we won't be saying the same for the next rung on the ladder of Ireland's attacking game.

Next Saturday: Italy v Scotland, Stadio Olimpico 2.15; Wales v France, Principality Stadium 4.45. Sunday: England v Ireland, Twickenham 3.0

Round 1: Wales 42 Italy 0; Ireland 19 Scotland 12; France 24 England 17.

Round 2: Ireland 24 Wales 14; Scotland 6 England 13; France 35 Italy 22.

Saturday, Mar 7: Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium 2.15; England v Wales, Twickenham 4.45. Sunday, Mar 8: Scotland v France, Murrayfield 3.0

Saturday, Mar 14: Wales v Scotland, Principality Stadium 2.15; Italy v England, Stadio Olimpico 4.45; France v Ireland, Stade de France 8.0

Sunday Indo Sport