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Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Ireland must choose between Sexton and Carbery.
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Farrell weighs up selection for Italy as Ireland sidestep physicality 'trap'
Joey or Johnny for the Italy game?

THE GROUP THAT stays in Ireland camp during the fallow weeks of the Six Nations usually gives us a strong indication of how they’re going to line out in the next game, in this case against Italy in Dublin on Sunday 27 February.

The 14 players released for URC action this weekend will welcome the minutes with their provinces, but there’s no doubt they would have preferred to be part of Ireland’s two-day camp that concluded with a training session against the Ireland U20s.

Farrell may, of course, sprinkle in a few of those who play for Leinster, Ulster, Munster, and Connacht this weekend against the Italians. The likes of Robert Baloucoune, Gavin Coombes, Dave Kilcoyne, and James Hume will be hoping for Test exposure in round three of the Six Nations.

But Farrell must also consider the fact that there is another fallow week on the other side of the Italy game before Ireland face into a trip to England and a home clash with Scotland in the final two rounds.

He will worry about leaving some of his front-liners without a game for three weekends by the time they face England. Rhythm and momentum are important with Ireland still in the hunt for a Six Nations title.

“There’s all sorts of things you need to bring into contention,” said Farrell yesterday. “It’s game time, it’s opportunity, it’s trying to predict what our team will look like in two or three weeks’ time, etc.

“There are all sorts of different permutations and it’s a tricky one around the fallow weeks because game time is pretty important.

“Some guys have not played too much, some of them have been sent back [to their provinces] but there are other guys who haven’t played too much. Do they need a game? What’s it going to look like if they don’t? There’s many moving parts we need to assess over the coming days.”

andy-farrell-before-the-game Dave Winter / INPHO Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland expect to have captain Johnny Sexton back fit and available for this Italy clash, so Farrell’s selection at out-half will be particularly fascinating.

Give Joey Carbery another start after he was at number 10 in Paris last time out or get Sexton straight back into the starting XV to ensure he doesn’t go four weekends without a game before facing England?

“We’ll see,” said Farrell as he batted the question away, insisting that he will see how this weekend pans out with the provinces before he finalises anything.

Farrell will definitely be without hooker Rónan Kelleher for the rest of the championship due to his shoulder injury but that should allow Dan Sheehan to make his first Test start, as well as seeing Dave Heffernan or the fit-again Rob Herring return to the matchday squad.

Ireland will be expected to win well against Italy, against whom they certainly won’t face the kind of physicality that France brought last weekend in Paris.

Whenever Ireland lose big games, there is always a focus on the physical side of the game, a narrative that Irish teams are simply smaller and less powerful than the best in the world, but Farrell says it’s not something he is allowing to filter into his camp.

“It’s a trap,” said the Ireland head coach. “I’ve seen Irish teams in the past fall into this trap of ‘they lost the physical battle’ and the next game, the sleeves are rolled up and the performance is worse. Because there is a reason why teams are physical or not.

“There were elements of that game where we were unbelievably physical. It’s because of our know-how and accuracy. There is a lot of fuel that has to go into being able to be physical and one of the main aspects of that is being connected, working well with one another, and making sure we’re not doing things on our own.

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james-ryan-loses-the-ball-in-a-tackle Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“The minute it becomes going off on a tangent, ‘I’ll do it, I’ll roll my sleeves up’ then the opposition are allowed to dominate you.

“There’s a bit of learning in or around that space of the game for us because it was more of an understanding about how physicality works, you have to earn the right to be physical and that’s something we have to learn.

“If we’ve all got 135kg blokes, just wind them up and let them go, but we’ve not got that so we’ve got to be a little bit smarter.”

Farrell said that Ireland had learned a huge amount about themselves in the defeat to Paris, including around their attack, which struggled to get into a flow in the first half as France laid siege on their breakdown.

Intriguingly, Farrell also saw his side slipping into old habits as they missed out on a few opportunities to move the ball into space at Stade de France.

“I thought a few times we reverted a little bit back to type, of 18 months ago, or back even a little bit further,” said Farrell.

“Sometimes that comes from a little bit of pressure from the opposition. Of course, we’ve got to be better because there were opportunities out there for us to be in sync and be ourselves and play to the space and we didn’t see that sometimes because of some of our inaccuracies.”

Originally published at 07.30

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