Back In The Saddle

2020 Six Nations Preview (Getting Back On The Horse) Header Photo
A New Broom: After spending the last World Cup cycle building a deserved reputation as world-beaters, Ireland fell apart at RWC 2019. Post-World Cup Six Nations tournaments have been characterised by uninspiring Irish performances for the guts of the last two decades, but with a new head coach and a plethora of players tearing it up at club level, Ireland have the chance to show that Japan wasn’t the apocalypse that it quite seemed three months ago.

 

The 2008, 2012 and 2016 Six Nations are not remembered fondly by Irish supporters, and for good reason. Well-worn teamsheets and coaching tickets that were viewed as lame duck combined to produce insipid performances from the Irish national side, but this time round, Andy Farrell has the luxury of being able to select numerous in-form players who are brimming with the confidence that comes with winning games against the toughest sides that the Heineken Cup has to offer.

 

Time will tell if there will be a departure from the grinding tactics that Joe Schmidt opted for when he was at the helm, but Irish rugby is in rude health compared to previous World Cup fallouts. With no provincial allegiance and being an unknown quantity as a head coach at any level, Farrell has a clean slate to work with, and no shortage of players making a case for international selection.

 

Breaking On Through To The Other Side

A lack of strength in depth was a serious problem for Irish rugby up until the last couple of years; the big clear-out that supporters wanted to see after their team failed at World Cups was nothing more than a fantasy. This meant that Irish coaches in the past were relying on the players who hadn’t delivered on the global stage to motivate themselves into getting back to top form, but the landscape is different now.

 

Players who weren’t ranked particularly highly by Joe Schmidt have put themselves forward, none more so than John Cooney. After pushing hard for inclusion in the Irish squad for the last two years, Cooney has pressed on even further and cemented his place as the best scrum-half in Europe. Dan McFarland has dragged Ulster out of a very deep hole since taking the reins in Belfast, and Cooney has been at the heart of everything good that the northern province are doing, grabbing games by the scruff of the neck with quick service and lethal sniping around the base of the ruck:

Cooney 1 (v Bath 2019)

Cooney 2 (v Cler 2019)

Cooney may have taken the road less travelled to get to an international call-up, but the head-to-head between himself and Conor Murray at the start of this month was a blowout; the former produced another stellar performance while the latter’s slow delivery and inaccurate box-kicks prevented him from putting any sort of stamp on the game. It would be harsh to discard Murray after delivering so much for his country, but healthy competition might be exactly what is needed to motivate him to getting back to his 2017 form.

 

Cooney’s teammate, Stuart McCloskey, has also made a strong argument for a place in Ireland’s starting XV. The rampaging Ulster centre isn’t a newcomer to Test rugby; he was deemed good enough to start against England back in 2016 during his first season as a regular starter at club level, and he played for Ireland as recently as November of 2018 against the US. A high error count kept him behind Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki in the pecking order for the 12 jersey, but he has ironed out this crease and added a kicking element to his game that, along with his improved passing, puts defences under intense pressure:

McCloskey 1 (v Harl 2019)

McCloskey 2 (v Bath 2020)

If Ireland can get him to thunder through opposition defences as he has done all season for Ulster with Garry Ringrose trailing him, then they should have no issue scoring tries.

 

Andrew Conway is another player who has never been considered a starter for Ireland, but he has built up a catalogue of compelling performances for Munster over the last few seasons, and has taken his opportunities at Test level with both hands. He has always possessed pace and a nose for the try line, but the continuous improvements he has made season-on-season in kick-chasing, defensive work-rate and tracking play make him arguably the most rounded winger in the country at present:

Conway 1 (v Osp 2019)

Conway 2 (v Osp 2019)

With Keith Earls still dealing with a troublesome knee injury and Jacob Stockdale’s form being patchy since the end of 2018, Conway won’t get a better chance to prove to Farrell that he is deserving of a starting berth at Test level.

 

For the last two World Cup cycles, Ireland’s starting and bench hookers have been polar opposites; Rory Best was a gritty, nuts-and-bolts type player with excellent basics but wasn’t what one would call a gifted athlete, whereas Seán Cronin is a wrecking-ball carrier but could never be trusted to start important matches due to the inconsistencies in his lineout throwing, so both of them left Ireland short of something.

 

That’s not to paint either as deeply flawed; Best is Ireland’s most successful captain and Cronin has won an abundance of silverware with Leinster, but they were at opposite ends of the scale in terms of skill set, and Ireland were lacking a destructive carrier in the loose or stability in the set-piece depending on which one of them was on the pitch. Leinster’s latest emerging star, Rónan Kelleher, has everything you could ask for in a hooker, though, with his performances this season characterised by hyperaccurate throwing and impressive pace off the mark:

Kelleher 1 (v Tre 2019)

Kelleher 2 (v Con 2019)

The wrist injury he picked up in Franklin’s Gardens back in December stunted the incredible progress he has made, but if he recovers from it sufficiently to play a part in this tournament, he could well become a mainstay in the Irish team for the next decade.

 

Kelleher is one of several young players making waves this season; Caelan Doris, Max Deegan and Tom O’Toole have been included in Ireland’s squad on merit, with their mobility having caught Farrell’s eye:

Doris (v Nor 2019)

Deegan (v Lyon 2020)

O’Toole (v Harl 2019)

On top of rewarding form, introducing fresh faces into a squad energises it with the exuberance of the younger players while lighting a fire under the more established ones, and those are two things that Ireland are in dire need of at this moment in time. The selection of Kelleher, Doris, Deegan and O’Toole, along with development players Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Harry Byrne and Robert Baloucoune, gives Ireland’s squad a youthful look, and the prospect of senior players being dropped if their form isn’t up to scratch suggests a competitive environment under Farrell.

 

Blank Canvas

If Ireland can harness the energy from their previously unheralded/breakthrough players who are making names for themselves in Europe and utilise the experience of their older players who still have what it takes to justify their selection at Test level, then there’s no reason why they can’t be contenders to win this year’s Six Nations, even with tough away fixtures against England and France.

 

Without being disrespectful, having Scotland (minus their most influential player) at home lets Ireland to ease their way into this tournament; they struggled badly in Japan as well, but Gregor Townsend doesn’t have the player pool that his counterpart has at his disposal. The Six Nations is never won on the first weekend, but a convincing display against the Scots next Saturday could be a timely reminder that Ireland aren’t the fading force that many portrayed them to be throughout 2019.

 

There will be a lot of guesswork for Ireland to do with regards to what their opponents are going to bring to the table; Eddie Jones is a familiar foe but spoke of culling his squad as soon as they were defeated by the Springboks in the World Cup final, and Wayne Pivac, Fabien Galthié and Franco Smith are likely to bring different approaches than their predecessors. Having spent most of his playing and coaching career in South Africa, Smith probably won’t have Italy flinging the ball around, but based on his background and the Scarlets’ style of play when he coached them, Pivac is guaranteed to expand Wales’ attack.

 

Galthié, too, is certain to widen his team’s scope when it comes to how they use the ball, but the head coaches listed above aren’t the only ones with the element of surprise. As mentioned earlier, this is Farrell’s first time in charge of a side, so nobody knows what to expect from him. He has leaned towards dynamism and impact around the park in his squad selections, so a more adventurous game plan could be on the cards.

 

This is where the choice of scrum-half is crucial, because there’s a little bit more to the aforementioned Cooney v Murray argument than just current form. Murray has been an outstanding servant to Irish rugby, and the greatest victories of the Joe Schmidt era have had his fingerprints all over them. His individual performance against the All Blacks in Chicago is the best I have ever seen from an Irish scrum-half, but even when at the top of his game, he was guilty of being relatively slow to get the ball away from the ruck. He has been more than capable of imposing himself on matches in other ways, but if Ireland are to start playing an attacking game predicated on lightning-quick ruck ball, then Cooney would be the ideal option to start at 9.

 

In saying that, it would be foolish to cast Murray out in the wilderness altogether. His skill set and experience make him the perfect scrum-half for closing out a tight game, and likewise, it would be poor judgement on Ireland’s part to move completely away from the forward-oriented tactics that brought a huge amount of success under Schmidt. As the New Zealander was fond of saying, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and it would work out better for Ireland if they added quick-ball attack to their repertoire, as opposed to starting from scratch.

 

The mark of a great team is the ability to win games in more than one way, and while Ireland have profited from wearing sides down with one-out carries in recent years, all four provinces now play expansive rugby. Learning to operate at both ends of the spectrum would allow Ireland to develop further and get back to the top of the pile. Whatever strategy Farrell has in mind, the gloom that RWC 2019 left over the future of this Ireland team should be lifted during the next two months.

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