Expert Witness: Bernard Jackman backs Joe McCarthy as the ‘right call’ with Ireland seeking to ‘cure’ World Cup hangover

James While
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Former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman, France head coach Fabien Galthie and Ireland coach Andy Farrell.

Former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman, France head coach Fabien Galthie and Ireland coach Andy Farrell.

After the disappointment of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Ireland and Andy Farrell have dusted themselves off and are raring to go for their Six Nations title defence.

We have teamed up with eToro, the official investing and trading partner of Premiership Rugby, to cover the 2024 Six Nations, previewing and reviewing the entire tournament.

This week, former Ireland hooker and Dragons and Grenoble head coach Bernard Jackman joins Expert Witness to discuss the prospects of Farrell’s men and delve deep into their upcoming campaign.

Ireland’s World Cup hangover and the first challenge, France

The build-up to this year’s Six Nations seemed a little quieter in Ireland than normal this January, with maybe a slight hangover from the Rugby World Cup, but it has really been building this week, and we possibly have the game of this year’s tournament first up with Ireland playing France in Marseille on Friday night.

The whole country was fully invested in the Irish quest to win the Rugby World Cup, and it all came to a halt with a bang that Saturday evening in Paris against the All Blacks. The Six Nations is the perfect cure for any hangover, and with three home games in Dublin this Spring, I am looking forward to having Italian, Welsh and Scottish fans over and some brilliant games on show.

In terms of the main actors in this year’s competition, Ireland are definitely the ones with the least amount of change. At the top in terms of coaching group but also in the playing squad, we will have the majority of the men that have bought us great success and consistency over the last few years, which should be a huge help as others try and find their feet.

We go into the match with only one loss in our last 18 matches and will certainly be very settled. But we will need all that cohesion in Marseille on Friday night because this French squad look set up for success this season. Strong showings in the Champions Cup by some of their X-factor players and a couple of years of outstanding U20 sides means that Fabien Galthie has the richest depth to pick from of any of the Six Nations coaches.

Even though Antoine Dupont is unavailable due to his decision to play Sevens in the Olympics this summer, they have eight or nine scrum-halves that are good enough to play international rugby, and they really should be able to win the Championship without him.

Galthie has revolutionised the French national team and is a very smart tactician. He was widely criticised in France for not winning the Rugby World Cup and, in particular, for watering down the kick-heavy strategy that had led them to the Grand Slam in 2022. Let’s not forget that they lost by a single point to the eventual winners, the Springboks, in one of the best knockout games ever at a World Cup, and the pain of that defeat will be fuel for a strong season. The stadium at the Stade de France is being renovated for the Paris games, so France are playing this year’s home games in Marseille and Lyon. Smaller stadiums in terms of capacity, but the novelty and buzz they will get from bringing games south will be huge and make them even more formidable at home.

Big selection calls

Planet Rugby spoke to Jackman as part of our Six Nations partnership with eToro, and he notes the parallels between rugby and investing.

In a high-collision and physically testing sport like rugby, you need to have trust and respect for your team and teammates, playing off of each other’s strengths. Players and coaches work together to try and achieve a goal. When we invest, we have trust and respect for the process, utilising the tools we have on hand and making decisions based on how each investment moves to reach our investment goals for the future. Just as rugby players seek coaches with expertise and a proven track record, investors diligently choose strategies and advisors to safeguard their hard-earned money, aligning their financial journey with those who have demonstrated success.

Our big selection calls were on the right wing to replace Mack Hansen, and it’s Calvin Nash who gets the opportunity to build on his outstanding form for Munster there. Munster, under their attack coach Mike Prendergast, play a similar system to Ireland with the wingers having the licence to roam the field. Nash has excelled in this system and isn’t proven on the international stage, but he deserves his shot.

Then the other position that I think the coaches had a long debate on is the second-row where Joe McCarthy is the form choice but obviously way less experienced than Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson and James Ryan. When I look at the French pack that we are facing and how big and powerful they are, the more I believe it is the right call that we start Joe in this game, especially. You have to be able to meet fire with fire, and he has that in his locker.

Who would partner him was a tight call, but I would have gone for Ryan at lock and move Beirne to blindside, shifting Peter O’Mahony across to openside with Caelan Doris at eight. That’s a back five who are as hard, tough, and combative as we can select, and for this match, it may have been the way to go. For other games, we can go back to O’Mahony at six and Josh van der Flier at seven, of course, but it’s horses for courses that I feel we need this week.

Farrell may decide to focus on our game and not be overly concerned with the French size. He possibly feels we can play a high-tempo game and run them off their feet, which is perhaps why he has gone for Van der Flier at seven, and if we can survive the set-piece battle, that may be the right call. Our scrum and lineout were inconsistent at the Rugby World Cup, and there have been some concerns in the provinces in this area since then, too. You won’t beat France away if you can’t win your own set-piece ball.

Filling Johnny Sexton’s void

We will miss Johnny Sexton immensely. As captain but also as an on-field coach. His game sense and ability to get the best out of his team was incredible. Over the last 10 years, no one has been able to knock him off his perch, and the responsibility to steer Ireland in this year’s competition falls to the young Munster out-half Jack Crowley.

Crowley was an outstanding U20 with Ireland and has quickly passed Joey Carbery and forced Ben Healy to move to Scotland, which shows how much faith Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell have in him. He seems to have it all in terms of skill set and character. All he lacks is time in the saddle at the highest level, and every match he plays for Ireland will make him better. We shouldn’t compare him or any of the other Irish 10 to the likes of Sexton or Ronan O’Gara. They will need to do it their own way.

The rest of the Six Nations

When I look at how teams are preparing for the Six Nations, I can see the similarities that parallel investing. The teams have a goal in mind, and how they hope to achieve that goal depends on their preparation, strategy and the resources at their disposal (including the players); this is the same approach many take when building their investment portfolio, whether it be in the hope of short-term or long-term success.

Ireland are looking for short-term success. They want to retain their title and have resisted change and potential long-term success by focusing on the short-term. Wales are looking to rebuild and are taking the risk of investing in youth, which, if it pays off, could lead to a big upturn further down the road.

Elsewhere, in Italy, former Stade Francais Top 14-winning coach Gonzalo Quesada has the unenviable task of trying to pick up the pieces of a disastrous Rugby World Cup where they suffered record-breaking defeats to the All Blacks and France. At least he is getting players that have won more games for Benetton and Zebre this season than normal, and there is some exciting talent emerging in Italian rugby. Realistically, they should be hoping to win one game, probably over Wales or Scotland, and that’s about all they could expect.

The Wales squad looks really poor on paper, and if Gatland can turn them into title contenders this season, it would surely rank as one of his great achievements. They open up at home to Scotland on Saturday in Cardiff, and they will fancy their chances of getting a win. The Scots will be interesting to follow. They have some good players, and Finn Russell at 10 is in great form for Bath, but they often flatter to deceive. Once again, they bowed out limply in the group stages of a World Cup, and Gregor Townsend will be focusing on regaining that defensive resilience that they had two seasons ago before he expects to be a championship side.

England are a dark horse for me. They have no Owen Farrell, who was taking a break from international rugby and now will become ineligible having signed for Racing 92 next season, but the reduced number of teams in the Premiership after the demise of London Irish, Wasps and Worcester has condensed the talent in the other 10 clubs, and they are starting to look much better equipped to go toe to toe with the top Irish and French teams in club rugby. They had the best finish of all the home nations at the World Cup and put in an incredible performance in the semi-final defeat to the Springboks. Felix Jones has gone in as their new defence coach and, by all accounts, has made an incredible impression. They have turned the corner as a squad, and Borthwick is in his second season as an international coach, and they have strength in depth in all positions.

My final table prediction is France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy and Wales.

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READ MORE: Six Nations preview: Defending champions Ireland to fall short of lofty standards