State of the Nation: Ireland must look to the future

Date published: March 18 2020

With the Six Nations done and dusted, for now at least, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Ireland.

Another team with a new head coach at the helm in 2020, it’s been a mixed start to the tenure of Andy Farrell after he took over from Joe Schmidt. With the latter having been in charge during a gradual slump in form, Farrell was fortunate in that the job was not an impossible one.

Yesterday we spoke of how Wayne Pivac was charged with a difficult role due to Warren Gatland’s outstanding work for such a long time, but, following Schmidt’s recent struggles and a game-plan that appeared to be tired and all too familiar, Farrell will be afforded much-needed time.

He began in perfect style results wise as home wins over Scotland and Wales got them off on the right foot. However, they were well beaten by England at Twickenham in Round Three and that was their final fixture of the Six Nations campaign to date, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Four points behind England and France in the standings and with one match in hand, Ireland remain in the race for the trophy whenever this year’s Six Nations reconvenes. One would expect them to take maximum points at home to Italy before flying out to Paris for a difficult finale.

If they were to either pick up the title or at least come within touching distance on the final Saturday, that would in some supporters’ eyes not be enough under Farrell. There is a growing sense of the team needing to provide greater entertainment than they have over the past 18 months when, as mentioned, they’ve looked laboured and predictable. A reset in style is vital and new personnel would certainly help in that regard.

There lies the recent problem for Ireland. There has been such a loyalty in the past to stick with the tried and tested faces and one wonders if 2020 was an ideal time to replace veterans who are unlikely to be around for the next World Cup. Player form too for provinces also went unrewarded in some positions as goal-kicking scrum-half John Cooney for example has been kept in reserve, despite a superb campaign at Ulster.

Talent is definitely a luxury Farrell has at his disposal in the PRO14 and the quality of Leinster’s youth in particular will delight him. We have already seen Caelan Doris and Max Deegan make their international bows and more will surely get the nod in the coming months, with real excitement surrounding the promise of 20-year-old second-row Ryan Baird following his hat-trick against Glasgow Warriors last month.

Yes, Farrell could have thrown in several of these up-and-coming players from the outset but he has been cautious, which is unsurprising due to it being his first head coach job. Of course he won’t have wanted results to have created immediate pressure but the balance of bringing through the new and phasing out the old will surely come over the next year, especially if Leinster and Ulster’s talent continue to impress.

Like Pivac he will be afforded time but the Irish stocks are much healthier in their club game to build a bright and exciting team leading up to the Rugby World Cup in France. It seems to be evolution, not revolution from Farrell in these early stages, but he is incredibly fortunate in terms of a talent pool and can definitely take this team forward if he is bold with selections and not afraid of making the difficult calls.