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Exciting autumn for Farrell's Ireland as Fiji and Georgia get a welcome invitation

Fixtures against Italy and Georgia look like chances to test the depth

ITALY, FRANCE, Wales, England, Georgia, and a yet-to-be-confirmed opponent in a play-off game on 5 December.

With confirmation of the new Autumn Nations Cup arriving today, we finally have full clarity on how autumn 2020 will unfold for Andy Farrell’s Ireland as the head coach looks to pick up with his project of driving the national team forward.

Six Test matches in seven weeks during October, November, and December will provide plenty of scope for Farrell and his coaching staff to really leave their imprint on this Ireland squad.

andy-farrell Andy Farrell's Ireland get up and running again next month. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Their two rescheduled Six Nations games at home against Italy and away to France will be played on the closing weekends of October before a rest weekend on 7/8 November allows them to take a breath and then plunge into four consecutive weeks of Autumn Nations Cup rugby.

Kicking off the new competition against Wales in Dublin under Friday night lights on 13 November will be exciting, with games against England and Georgia to follow before a play-off fixture on 5 December in Dublin against the nation with the same ranking in Group B.

The current World Rugby rankings suggest that the two groups in the new competition are slightly lopsided but the draw does ensure there are no repeat fixtures from the leftover Six Nations games in the Autumn Nations Cup group stages.

Welcoming Wales and Georgia to Dublin – as well as having their play-off game at home – is helpful for Ireland, but a visit to Twickenham will be demanding. It’s an early chance for revenge after Farrell’s men were well beaten there on their last outing before the lockdown.

Having the Georgians on board is extremely welcome, even if their years of waiting for this top-level opportunity have finally been answered at a time when they don’t appear to be in the best shape to seize the opportunity.

The Lelos don’t currently have a full-time head coach in place – Milton Haig left after the World Cup – and there have been reports of turmoil within the Georgian Rugby Union, but nonetheless this is a big opportunity.

Georgia will play Scotland in a warm-up game in October and then finish their so-far unbeaten 2020 Rugby Europe Championship campaign against Russia on 1 November, whereafter the hope is that they prove competitive in the Autumn Nations Cup.

To have 12th-ranked Georgia and 11th-ranked Fiji – who are in Group B with France, Scotland, and Italy – welcomed to the top table, even temporarily for now, is one of the best things about this reshuffled autumn calendar.

australia-v-fiji-pool-d-2019-rugby-world-cup-sapporo-dome Fiji's Semi Radradra is one of the most exciting players in the world. David Davies David Davies

Vern Cotter is in place as the Flying Fijians’ new boss and has assembled an impressive coaching team of Richie Gray, Jason Ryan, Glen Jackson, and Daryl Gibson. They won’t have much preparation time, but players of the calibre of Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova, and Leone Nakarawa could light up the competition.

Whatever about the newcomers and their opposition, Ireland have a fine chance to generate momentum and push forward this autumn.

The 2020 Six Nations title is still on the line, of course, and it will be interesting to see how Farrell approaches the first fixture of the autumn at home against Italy. Generally, it would be viewed as a chance to give opportunities to a few players who have been on the fringes of selection, and perhaps look to the future.

That Italy fixture takes place the weekend after the 2019/20 Champions Cup final, which could involve Leinster and/or Ulster. As Farrell has already acknowledged, he could be picking his team for Italy without the players who were involved in that European final the week before.

The Georgia game is clearly another opportunity for Farrell to blood inexperienced young players but really the entire autumn campaign feels like a chance to shake things up, create intense competition for places, and unearth a few gems at Test level. Farrell himself said he’s sure we’ll see a few bolters this season with a Lions tour to come next summer. 

We saw how Caelan Doris starting Ireland’s first game of the Six Nations helped to produce big performances from CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony as they reacted to being moved to blindside flanker and dropped to the bench, respectively.  

Ronan Kelleher will hope for his first start at hooker this autumn, while Farrell could potentially do with looking at his loosehead options behind the experienced Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, and Jack McGrath.

The back row will be extremely competitive again with Jack Conan now back from injury and getting up to full tilt, and with Dan Leavy set for his return soon too. Even picking the back rows for his wider squad will be tough for Farrell, never mind the starting trios.

jack-conan-with-jonny-gray Jack Conan will be hoping for a return to the Ireland squad. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

In the halfbacks, there is certainly room for Farrell to develop things beyond the longstanding incumbents Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton – who seems likely to remain captain this autumn.

Though he won’t be eligible for the Six Nations fixtures, James Lowe will have qualified to play for Ireland by the time they open their Autumn Nations Cup campaign and he could add something different to the back three. 

Tactically, the upcoming schedule will also be important for Farrell and attack coach Mike Catt, who introduced a 1-3-2-2 shape for the Six Nations earlier this year. In wins over Scotland and Wales, there were hints of the width Farrell and Catt are hoping can ask questions of defences.

Of course, Farrell’s job is to win Test matches, so his selections and tactics will be a reflection of that fact. With the World Rugby rankings crucial towards the pool draw for the 2023 World Cup, the Ireland boss won’t be ignoring the importance of results.

It will be fascinating to see how Ireland attempt to develop in the coming months and if it all comes to pass as scheduled, we are in for a very fun autumn of Test rugby.

- This article was updated at 12.00pm on 12 September to correct ‘Farrell Ireland’s’ to ‘Farrell’s Ireland’ in the headline.

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