Billy Stickland/INPHO
November Tests

New faces through squad, but familiar old foe looms in Ireland's autumn

The feelgood factor in Andy Farrell’s squad will be tested severely by another clash with England.

THE LEAVES ARE browned and blown when the autumn internationals roll around in wintry November each year.

The matches come with a spring in their step, promise of a clean slate amidst a new season. Normal circumstances would bring punters down Lansdowne Road in their dusted-down coats, huddling around a over-watered hot whiskey or stout in a plastic cup to ease the strains of the cooling, dampening Dublin air before a southern hemisphere side brings an exotic touch to the entertainment.

All of that will be different during this year’s unique iteration of the autumn Test schedule.

Football’s Nations League wasn’t exactly universally acclaimed, but rugby seems to have followed the brand pattern to design its own Nations Cup to fill the gaps in the fixture list left when southern hemisphere sides wisely avoided hopping through European airport after airport for this one year.

The broad outline of the usual November pattern is familiar, however. Ireland ordinarily welcome a serious World Cup challenger, a Tier two nation and another side – usually Argentina, but Australia have also filled the description over the years – who are roughly on a similar footing to ourselves.

World Cup runners-up England, Wales and Georgia are decent northern hemisphere understudies in southern hemisphere parts.

A series of one-off Tests (listen, call them friendlies if you want. We’ll not get het up on semantics) tend to be self-contained competitions in themselves. So defining what success looks like beyond a clean sweep of victories is a tricky business in ordinary times. Some would like to see new blood infused in the squad, some want to see gameplans shift and some are content to see gritty ground-out wins with proven campaigners.

With a tournament format ahead, there will be a very clear, definable outcome after Ireland’s four Test matches compared to the normally nebulous nature of Tests. Yet Andy Farrell will surely hope to gain ground in some of the more intangible areas. His squad selection suggests as much.

Farrell’s first year as head coach has been rich in promise and under-pinned by a renewed feelgood factor in a squad that had become hammered down under he weight of Joe Schmidt’s details. However, such positive signs either side of an unprecedented break for the game went hand in hand with reality checking lows away to Europe’s traditional dominant forces who demonstrated how far off elite pace Ireland currently are.

Farrell will be the first Irish head coach since Eddie O’Sullivan to go in to his first autumn series with a body of work already behind him. His direct predecessor Schmidt and Declan Kidney both took the helm for November after an interim coach had presided over an unfashionable summer tour.

O’Sullivan’s first year brought new caps for Paul O’Connell, Leo Cullen, Keith Gleeson and John Kelly. But there were no further additions to the group to his November party a year out from the World Cup.

Like Farrell, Kidney’s first November was three years out from a World Cup. But there was no raft of new faces, just two quality rookies in Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls.

Having handed out seven new caps (and brought Dave Heffernan in for a second, three years after his first) during the Six Nations, Farrell still doesn’t appear to be finished digging down the depth chart.

hugo-keenan-jacob-stockdale-and-james-lowe Hugo Keenan, Jacob Stockdale and James Lowe in Ireland training last month. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

November is not usually a time for mass overhaul in Irish rugby, the tickets are sold at a premium and the quality of the product is expected to be assured. The new coach may well hit double figures of new caps during his first year. James Lowe is too explosive a powder to be kept dry, Shane Daly is a silky prospect in a problem position and the head coach will want Billy Burns to prove his selection ahead of Jack Carty is warranted.

However many degrees Ireland will look to pivot in their approach to playing over the coming weeks, they will take confidence from the three home wins in the Six Nations that allowed them to carry talk of winning a Championship into the final weekend. That particular pot might have brought enough of a sheen to dull the memories of the drubbing sustained in Twickenham back in February. Success in the form of a Nations Cup run would feel empty if it came about by some freak set of results that did not include a win over England.

Eddie Jones’ side were the best team over the course of last year’s World Cup, they are Six Nations champions and the standard-bearers in the northern hemisphere. Devising a way to perform against them must be the core focus of the matches ahead. Tests against a transitioning Wales and, by that point, a tiring Georgia will unfold how they may. However, for Ireland to progress under Farrell and beyond the Schmidt era they will continually have to navigate their way through England.

Novembers, for a new head coach, don’t necessarily  bring revolution and upheaval. But they do set the tone for what is to follow. Schmidt, of course, was within seconds of a thrilling win over the All Blacks in 2013 – his team arguably never played with as much unbridled ferocity as they did that day.

Kidney was much further off New Zealand in 2008, but a steady deliberate course was set through an ugly win over Argentina in Croke Park and they slogged on to a Grand Slam.

toutai-kefu-digital INPHO INPHO

O’Sullivan had Warren Gatland well in his rear-view mirror when Ireland set the tone for their run of Triple Crowns, title challenges and provincial prominence with a win over the then World Champion Wallabies.

Farrell must hope his side can draw a line in the sand so deep. The feelgood factor that that seemed to be swelling after Italy and shaken after France will be more difficult to sustain if Eddie Jones’ outfit of alphas again appear imperious against Ireland.

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