What a difference four months makes! There’s been a new vibe around Irish Rugby this week and Saturday evening (4.45pm kick off) sees the start proper of the new Andy Farrell reign as Ireland Head Coach. PSA Academies’ own Johne Murphy has shared his thoughts on Ireland’s much anticipated 2020 6 Nations opener at home to Scotland. Read his preview below.
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After all the negativity of Ireland’s disappointing and much analysed World Cup campaign, it’s been great to see fresh energy within the Irish set up for the last few weeks. Obviously, the dominance of Leinster in the Champions Cup pool stages, plus the strong performances of many Irish squad members across the other provinces, has been a great base to work off. However, Andy Farrell has wasted no time putting his own stamp on the visible parts of the Irish national squad set up, including appointing Johnny Sexton as his 6 Nations captain and announcing his starting XV early enough to make Joe Schmidt very fidgety indeed. So far so good in terms of intent but as ever, it’s what happens on the pitch this weekend that will really determine the public perception of a where this reboot under a familiar face, if different voice, is going to bring us longer term.
Comfort food but with extra seasoning!
Despite a lot of early speculation and media pressure, Farrell has kept the surprises to a minimum for the weekend, with a well balanced, largely familiar starting team that still makes some acknowledgment of the coming force of young Leinster talent. The balance is not just evident in terms of opportunity for established and new players but crucially in terms of rugby ability and attitude. Yes, there may have been some debate in certain positions, with established stars arguably lucky to keep their starting roles based on the World Cup disappointment but it’s been made very clear by the new Head Coach that this game represents a chance to reset and rediscover some of the mental, emotional edge that Ireland lost through 2019.
Before we get into the selection specifics, the message has been crystal clear to the forwards selected by Farrell and John Fogarty – it’s time to get back to being a touch, aggressive, dominant pack. The management have clearly tried to strip back on some of the more suffocating technical detail (much of which must be hardwired at this stage) to get back to basics. Given the edge Ireland usually have over Scotland up front, with the convincing pool win in Japan being no exception, it’s really important that we start with the right intensity on Saturday evening. Sure, it’s not Eddie Jones’ England pitching up for the opener this year but it is still hugely key that this team makes a statement of intent from the first whistle of this campaign. On the more technical side, the starting pack has, on paper, a great mix of skill and power, with lots in the locker in terms of ball carrying and playing ability. Herring and Henderson will be an important combination in both lineout and scrum, with both arguably having something to prove internationally. The form of the Leinster forwards speaks for itself and while James Ryan may not have inherited the captaincy role that some felt he was ready for, he’ll remain a totem for this Irish side. In the backrow, Caelen Doris is a hugely exciting talent getting his first start, which is nothing more than he deserves on form. He has the dynamism and skills to be a game breaker for this Irish team so it’s going to be exciting to see him bring that to the highest stage. Overall, this Irish back row looks to have the best balance of any for quite a while, with CJ bringing fantastic attitude, strength and breakdown battle and Josh Van Der Flier adding pace, defence and all-round footballing ability.
The right call at half back
It may feel like a snub for the in-form John Cooney but I believe the right call has been made at scrum-half. Conor Murray looks to have finally shaken off the injury niggles and is finding his top form again. We all know what a confident, fit Murray brings to the Irish team and his partnership with Johnny Sexton is crucial, especially in a new gameplan potentially offering more freedom to play based on experience, which should reap rich dividends against a Scottish team shorn of their mercurial out half Finn Russell. Having said all that, I would expect Cooney to be introduced with 25-20 minutes to go, giving him ample time to make a stamp on the game. You can be sure that Conor Murray is fully aware of this and that competition should only bring out the best in both players. As for Sexton, all eyes will be on the new captain in terms of his handling of the referee and the game, on what will be a big occasion for his personally and the team overall. He has more than enough experience to deliver on that seamlessly but any difficulties for Ireland in getting to the pitch of the game, either through our own mistakes or cynical play by the under-pressure Scots, may test the patience of a leader who’s hardwired to demand high standards.
Time to unleash the backs
In the centre, the selection doesn’t need too much questioning, with Aki bringing a combativeness and offloading ability that the Head Coach will want, while Garry Ringrose has now entered his prime as an outside centre of the highest class. The two players know each well and the pairing offers a similar balance to the back row. It will be interesting to see what early signs there are of any change in technical approach by Defence Coach Simon Easterby, albeit the team will have had pretty limited time working on this so far. The back three are potentially electric and it will be really interesting what license new backs/attack coach Mike Catt has given them to have a go from open play. If Scotland don’t absolutely nail their kicking game, they could be in big trouble here. Jason Stockdale had a poor World Cup by his standards and he’ll be looking to get back to the form that made him the top try scorer and breakout star of the 2018 6 Nations.
Strong bench impact
In terms of bench strength, Ireland have rarely if ever been in a better position. The all new front row that we can expect to be sprung around the 60 minute mark is really exciting, with all three players having a great chance of putting pressure on for a starting role by the end of the competition. In particular, any technical issues in the Irish lineout in the first half could play into new debutant Ronan Kelleher’s hands as he will have the advantage of throwing to big Devin Toner and Peter O’Mahony during his cameo on the pitch. Both Ross Byrne and Robbie Henshaw will have much to prove for differing reasons, if/when they get there nod, so all in all, the final quarter of the game should really show where this Irish squad is at.
Beware the Scottish backlash
While we can and should bring a decent level of confidence into the weekend, we’d be very foolish to write off the Scots, even with home advantage. The Scottish team never showed up for the 2019 Rugby World Cup opener and they’ll be fully wound up to avenge that situation. It’s hard to know what exactly has gone on around the deselection of Finn Russell for this game and it’s certainly not textbook preparation for a 6 Nations campaign but it may well have a galvanising effect for a side that invariably use adversity in their favour. With Gregor Townsend calling for his team to be a ‘nightmare’ for Ireland, it’s fair to suspect that we’re in for a really aggressive, pressure game from the Scots as they tried to disrupt every aspect of the Irish game. In that scenario, French referee Mathieu Raynal is going to potentially have a big influence on the game, particularly in his management of the breakdown and policing of the offside line in midfield. The selection of the all Edinburgh back row of Ritchie, Watson and uncapped number 8 Nick Haining is a clear signal that combinations and understanding are going to be key, while centre Huw Jones is back in a starting role after missing out on World Cup selection altogether. Needless to say, all eyes will be on young Adam Hastings starting at outhalf and it will be a big test of his game management under pressure in such a crunch 6 Nations fixture.
Ireland to make a solid start to new era
We can expect a fantastic atmosphere and fierce competition for the first 50-60 minutes but I’d be disappointed if this Irish selection doesn’t have the ability to combat the inevitable Scottish fight and build their way into a match-winning position. It’s often risky to be overconfident in these situations and it’s only fair to expect some rustiness in the combination play. Still, I think all Irish fans will be well satisfied by a winning start that sees a new willingness by Ireland to break free of the self-imposed shackles and play with more aggression, confidence and ambition when it’s on.
Ireland to win by 13 points