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Lost weekend offers Farrell the opportunity to change after a rest

Brendan Fanning


Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile


Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile

The beauty of life in the bubble is that you follow the schedule that lands in your inbox. You don't have to worry about what's happening beyond that. If you're being paid a shed-load of money for complying with the instructions then all the better. This must be what athletes mean when they talk of 'living the dream'.

So while the noises coming from Camp Ireland are of lads running around like mad things, looking for horses to throw a saddle on and ride further away from the England massacre, they can cope with the gap. Last week had a high physical content, aided and abetted by the arrival of the Ulster squad for a pile on. Casualties? A few players had to be minded in the Thursday session but the line is that all will be fit for Saturday in Paris. If it happens.

There is not a lot Andy Farrell can do to influence that, so his focus is on getting maximum benefit from this weekend's enforced break. Looking back to the World Cup, England were all the better for their cancelled game against France, when it came to hobbling the Wallabies in the quarter-final. You'll recall New Zealand had an extra week off as well before playing Ireland at the same point in the competition. Didn't do them much harm.

So there are advantages in this brutal sport of having time off. The respite can be used for all sorts. From a selection point of view it's useful to have the gap. The fundamental difference is that Farrell is now picking for a Saturday night in Paris rather than a gimme against Italy in Dublin. Some issues remain unchanged: who to start at nine, and how to make up his back-row.

The former is plain tedium at this stage; the latter would be improved by the removal of Peter O'Mahony for a combination of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris at eight and Josh van der Flier at openside.In this mini-break Farrell could even learn something from an unlikely source: the schools game. Or rather, one clip from it. At the risk of feeding the monster that is the Leinster Schools Senior Cup, the game between Newbridge and St Michael's last week was epic stuff. Upsets on a grand scale are rare enough in that competition. Upsets carved out of a scene where the underdog is being poked with a sharp stick, with no apparent relief in sight, are like hens' teeth.

So in Donnybrook last week Newbridge were two tries down against a team who had been accorded 'dream' status by those who document these things. No way back from there lads.

This is not a story of spirit and effort, though clearly there were industrial loads involved in Newbridge's win, rather it's about a combination of cleverness and bravery. St Michael's were runaway favourites with good reason: if they were to play Newbridge 10 times in a season they'd likely win nine of them. To put that into context, Newbridge would not be on St Michael's fixture list in the round of friendlies as they operate at different levels in the schools eco system.

St Michael's have quality players across the board, with very high skill levels and absolute clarity in the game they want to play. Detail and structure are massively important to them. Their defensive line speed was fearsome, so Newbridge considered how they could counter that. The best chance they concluded would be to cut their cloth to suit their measure: play the game close to the breakdown; mix it up, open with blind. That would limit St Michael's chances of making big turnover hits on players stranded far from the mothership. And it would force their front five in particular to make a lot of tackles.

It wouldn't be pretty. More importantly it would be highly enervating. Sustaining it would be a technical and emotional challenge, to be accurate in the first place and sufficiently thick-skinned in the second to play such one-dimensional rugby.

A week ago in these pages we suggested Ireland might have posed themselves the same question in preparation for going to Twickenham. Yes, this was with the benefit of hindsight, but Ireland's experience at the hands of England offered Newbridge some foresight for coping with St Michael's. Which brings us back to the truism in rugby that what least suits your opponent frequently is what most suits you.

This won't appeal to Farrell and Mike Catt, and indeed the team leader Johnny Sexton, all of whom came away from the Scotland and Wales games thinking that Ireland's attacking game was coming along nicely. And indeed it was. But it needed to have evolved more before running it in Twickenham against a team of such power.

That dilemma raises its head again going to Paris on Saturday night. Had Italy been here yesterday Ireland could have employed pretty much what they wanted and still picked up the five points. The experience would have been useful, with another layer added to their shape.

France, in their place, will be a different matter. They will be more fatigued from this afternoon with Scotland - perhaps with a couple of players removed through injury - and the travel involved. If it goes well for them, however, they will have a tremendous surge of energy, going for a Grand Slam. The Irish lads will be watching all of this with their feet up. When it comes to planning the last weekend they need to keep an open mind.

Sunday Indo Sport