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Where next for Ireland? Autumn Nations Cup a chance to look to the future

Head coach Andy Farrell feels he needs to keep creating more competition for places.

James Lowe is set for his Ireland debut this month.
James Lowe is set for his Ireland debut this month.

WHILE MANY OF us on the outside will be looking at the bigger picture and wondering whether the gap from Ireland to France and England is only continuing to grow, Andy Farrell and his squad will be focusing on getting back on the horse.

Mercifully, they don’t have to wait too long to play again after their disappointment in Paris on Saturday night.

After reconvening as a squad this Thursday, Ireland will be in action again in just 12 days’ time for their Autumn Nations Cup opener against Wales in Dublin on Friday 13 November.

There are clear improvements to be made but speaking on Saturday night, Farrell was of the view that Ireland were well within a sniff of beating France and claiming the Six Nations title.

“There were six or seven tries in that game for us and we came away with three in the end,” said Farrell, lamenting Ireland’s failure to capitalise on opportunities “for a whole range of reasons.”

The Ireland coach stressed his belief that Ireland are close but there is little doubt that this upcoming Autumn Nations Cup campaign is an opportunity to try to push things forward.

Wales home, England away, Georgia home, and a play-off game at home – the run of four Tests in four weekends is an ideal chance to look at a few different options.

Farrell will point to debuts for Will Connors, Hugo Keenan, Ed Byrne, and Jamison Gibson-Park in the past fortnight as progress, but there could be more to come in that sense.

Munster’s Shane Daly could win his first cap, given he hasn’t been used over the last two weekends, while Farrell will hope Leinster’s explosive 21-year-old lock Ryan Baird overcomes his adductor strain to get what looks like being a long Test career underway.

There will definitely be one notable new cap this month, with James Lowe qualified to play for Ireland from the Wales game onwards.

The 28-year-old New Zealand native has been training with Ireland in recent weeks, making it clear that he is a big part of Farrell’s plan moving forward, and the head coach will be excited to see what Lowe can bring to the party at Test level. 

andy-farrell Farrell will look at his squad depth this month. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As-yet unused squad members like Ronan Kelleher, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Jack Conan, John Ryan, Quinn Roux, Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey will be craving a chance too, while John Cooney will hope his return to the set-up last week is repeated.

“We need to keep growing our squad obviously,” said Farrell. “That goes without saying, that has to be the approach the whole time.

“There will be combinations we probably need to find out about and hopefully, we can keep going down the line of competition for places which is going to be good for us in the long run.”

In assessing the defeat in Paris, Farrell will likely account for the injury-enforced absences of Tadhg Furlong, Dave Kilcoyne, and Jordan Larmour, as well as the suspended Iain Henderson, who will be available again for the Wales clash.

Those absences were certainly felt in Paris, where Ireland’s bench was callow.

The fullback position will be an interesting one over the coming weeks after Jacob Stockdale had a poor game against France. Larmour had been the first-choice in that slot, while Farrell would love to have Ulster’s Will Addison – currently sidelined for a few months – available.

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“A ball has been put along the floor and it’s a tricky old ball and what you guys probably wouldn’t see as much as ourselves here, it was a slippy pill and hence the reason,” said Farrell of Stockdale’s error before France’s penalty try in the first half.

“And it’s no excuse, there shouldn’t have been that much dropped ball in our regard anyway, but it’s a tricky enough ball.

“Obviously he’ll be disappointed with that, having said that there’s plenty of good in Jacob’s game as well and I suppose like many of our players he’ll be disappointed with a few things.

“But obviously he’s trying, he adds something to us in our exits and kicking game, etc., so it wasn’t… obviously he’ll look at the errors, but I suppose there were errors across the board, wasn’t there?”

jonathan-sexton-leaves-the-field-after-being-replaced Sexton was replaced in the 69th minute in Paris. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Captain Johnny Sexton was among those to make errors while his reaction upon being replaced in the 69th-minute has justifiably drawn much criticism.

Whether Farrell views the persistent shaking of the head as Sexton departed as an open show of dissent remains to be seen. The Ireland boss has vowed to pick his captain on a campaign-by-campaign basis.

“I don’t think there was any malice in that, I think he was more disappointed with some of the stuff that we had done, to be fair to him really,” was Farrell’s brief answer when asked about Sexton’s reaction.

Clearly, the out-half can’t play every game in this Autumn Nations Cup but Farrell must figure out who his next-in-line is with Joey Carbery set to be sidelined on into 2021. Right now, the gap from Sexton to the rest is simply too big.

Ross Byrne will have been disappointed with his errors off the bench in Paris, while Carty is still hoping for his first cap since last year’s World Cup.

It will be interesting to see if Farrell opts to cap any of the younger players he brought into camp before the Italy game, including 21-year-old Leinster out-half Harry Byrne, who has plenty of potential.

Munster’s promising scrum-half Craig Casey and lock Fineen Wycherley were recently in camp too, with Casey’s man-of-the-match performance against Dragons yesterday underlining his talent. The Limerick man’s energy is hard to ignore.

And if Sexton is not on the pitch or no longer Farrell’s skipper, who is the Ireland captain? James Ryan has yet to do the job for Leinster but has clear leadership credentials. 

“James Ryan was absolutely immense physically,” said Farrell on Saturday.

After the frustration of Paris, Ireland finished their delayed Six Nations campaign third in the table and with more than a few regrets.

“It’s disappointing,” said Farrell.

“We thought we were in with a shout [in Paris] and we’ll certainly look back on that game when there was a trophy on the line and really take a good look at ourselves and the fact that it’s an opportunity missed.

“There were opportunities for us to win that match and we fluffed our lines at times.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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