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Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Farrell's early priority will be to establish new Irish order'

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Coach must absorb the lessons of Japan by backing form as he looks for winning start


Senior men: Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney sing the ‘Ireland’s Call’ before their World Cup defeat to New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Senior men: Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney sing the ‘Ireland’s Call’ before their World Cup defeat to New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Senior men: Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney sing the ‘Ireland’s Call’ before their World Cup defeat to New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

A player is, we are often told, only as good as their last game. For a host of Ireland front-liners, this is a perilous thought for their last outing in green was a horror show.

The impact of their under-performance against New Zealand has perhaps dulled with time. Life and sport moves on quickly, but the return of the Six Nations brings the national rugby team back centre stage.

There is a new man in the coaching booth, but the burning question is whether he will have a new team on the pitch. Has Andy Farrell learnt the lessons of the previous regime or is he doomed to repeat them?

Although he has been part of the Irish set-up since 2016, there is so much we do not know about the former dual-code international who will pick his first team as a head coach on Tuesday. His first move will be telling as he juggles those twin imposters, form and experience, while attempting to find a winning formula.

He is hamstrung by a lack of preparation time; there is no time to radically alter the team or the plan. The temptation for Farrell must be to go with the players with a proven capacity to win at this level.

Of the match-day 23 that took the field against New Zealand, 17 are available to Farrell for the opening game with Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery injured, Rory Best retired and Rob Kearney, Niall Scannell and Rhys Ruddock dropped.

One of the major criticisms of the coach's predecessor, Joe Schmidt, was that he was overly loyal to a cabal of senior players who became undroppable in his latter years.

The team, when fit, largely picked itself with established favourites on IRFU central contracts getting the nod regardless of form. Of course, Devin Toner and Jack McGrath would argue that loyalty was not one of the coach's strong points, but as the disastrous 2019 campaign progressed it was clear that the coach had gone all in on his senior men and he left the table with empty pockets.

With Best and Kearney gone from the starting XV, there are two open slots for Farrell to fill.

In Jordan Larmour and Will Addison, he has exciting options for the full-back berth. Both offer something different from the man they are replacing and have the capacity to reshape Ireland's counter-attacking game if they are given the licence to do so.

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With Best, Scannell and Seán Cronin all omitted, Farrell is light on experience at hooker where Rob Herring is the most-capped option with eight.

Rónan Kelleher would be the bold choice, but he hasn't played any rugby since early December through injury and may have to bide his time behind the Ulster man.

They are the open goals for Farrell to change things, but elsewhere he is faced with the choice between a senior man and a fresh option.

On the wing, Dave Kearney and Andrew Conway are the men in form, but Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale are the men in possession.

Earls is not enjoying a great season on the back of a World Cup blighted by injury, while Stockdale has recovered his form after a dreadful performance against New Zealand. Both could be vulnerable. In the centre, the status quo was maintained when Stuart McCloskey was omitted from the original squad. He's unlikely to break through, even though he has been called up to the Portugal camp.

At half-back, the new captain Johnny Sexton is a nailed-on starter if fit, but there is far more intrigue about who will partner the skipper.

John Cooney is the form No 9 in Europe this season and the clamour for his inclusion is loud. He knows Sexton well and is bursting with confidence, while Luke McGrath has quietly impressed in recent weeks.

Perhaps no call sums up Farrell's dilemma like this one. He has worked with and trusts Conor Murray, a Lion and world-class player when in form.

But even he would admit the Munster man has not been at his best this year. Cooney has been flying.

If Farrell is committed to picking on form, then the Ulster man should start, but the continuity call is Murray.

If he does, he'll need a platform and so the tight-five is likely to have a familiar look around the new hooker, even if Dave Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter have justified claims for a starting berth.


Returning Devin Toner to the second-row would make life a little easier for an inexperienced thrower, even if the in-form Leinster lock is not exactly one for the long-term. Iain Henderson may be consigned to a bench role.

The back-row is another area where Farrell has big issues. Ireland's trio looks lightweight compared to the best around and the emergence of Caelan Doris and Max Deegan at Leinster and the form of Munster's Jack O'Donoghue should put the heat on Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander.

Stander's numbers are always good, but his one-dimensional approach often limits Ireland's attack. Perhaps a return to the No 6 shirt would open up the way the back-row contributes with Doris primed for a big career at the base of the Irish scrum.

Farrell has options, but also has a pressing need to get off to a winning start and four years to build towards a World Cup, so he's unlikely to make radical changes from the outset.

Still, there must be repercussions for such a shocking World Cup performance and it would be galling to see as many as 13 players retaining their places from Tokyo.

A winning start is important, change is essential. Balancing the two is the key for Ireland's new coach.

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