Dan Sheridan/INPHO Ireland have suffered two defeats from two so far in the Six Nations.
# Selection
With pressure on, Farrell seems unlikely to go for great experimentation in Italy
Ireland must now fight to turn their Six Nations campaign around after two defeats.

WHILE MANY SUPPORTERS will be hoping to see a very fresh-looking Ireland team travel to Rome in two weekends’ time, they may end up disappointed.

Just over a year into his tenure, Andy Farrell must be feeling under pressure and the Ireland head coach seems unlikely to take what he may see as unnecessary risks for what is a must-win game.

The make-up of the 24-man Ireland squad retained for a two-day training camp this week hints that there will not be any great experimentation for the Italy clash. This week’s camp will allow Ireland to bed in the game plan and specific plays they will use against the Azzurri, meaning Farrell’s starting players are likely to be in that camp.

It is still possible that some of the 12 men released to their provinces this weekend will be involved against Italy, of course, and the bench should give Farrell some scope to look to the future, but his primary focus right now is on ensuring no slip-ups in Rome.

Ireland have won 27 of their last 28 games against Italy and the only defeat on a miserable day in 2013 was the final straw in the Declan Kidney era ending.

Farrell is on a long-term contract until the 2023 World Cup and his position is not under threat but failing to beat the Italians would be unacceptable from an IRFU point of view. Prize money in the Six Nations is crucial lifeblood now more than ever and the additional €500,000 or so for each place up the final Six Nations table matters. 

With Ireland suffering defeats in their opening two games of this Six Nations, Farrell will likely also feel he needs to get confidence, rhythm, and momentum back into first-choice players before the tougher games against Scotland and England – particularly with another rest weekend to come after this Italy clash. Ending the championship with one win and four defeats would leave him facing intense heat.

Some fans would love to see Farrell and the IRFU simply write this Six Nations off now that Ireland are out of the running for a title, throwing caution to the wind by backing the most exciting young players, but that’s not how the head coach or union will view it. 

“We want to win the next three games, so we will pick the best side accordingly for each game,” said Farrell when asked if he would use the Italy game to experiment in the halfback slots or bring back in the experienced duo of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.

johnny-sexton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Ireland captain Sexton will be eager to get back on the pitch. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It wouldn’t be a great surprise if both are back in the starting team for the Italy game, presuming their recoveries from injury continue on the current positive trajectory. Farrell still views Murray and Sexton, the Ireland captain, as the best halfbacks available to him. 

Ronan Kelleher’s impact off the bench over the past fortnight means he is pushing for a start against Italy, with Tadhg Furlong in the same boat, while Jordan Larmour would also love a chance from the off in Rome. The uncapped Craig Casey, Ryan Baird, Tom O’Toole, and Harry Byrne could be candidates for first caps if Farrell glances to the future. 

To be fair, Farrell would probably like more breathing room to change things up and he will surely be feeling that events have conspired against him in recent weeks with Peter O’Mahony’s red card against Wales, as well as with the injuries to Sexton, Murray, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, and Jacob Stockdale.

That said, it was a lucky bounce of the ball that gave Ireland their only try against France on Sunday and made the game a contest in the final quarter, with the close scoreline seeing Farrell praise his team for “their work-rate and putting their bodies on the line for their country.”

The Ireland boss was also quick to point out that “Test matches are there to be won, especially at home.”

Although Farrell is in his first job as a head coach, he has been around Test rugby for a long time now and understands better than most people that results are the most valuable currency in the game. 

But there are question marks over Ireland’s attack under Mike Catt and Simon Easterby’s defence slipped on a couple of occasions against the French.

The introduction of Paul O’Connell has seen an improvement in the lineout and maul, with some big steals in the past fortnight, but Ireland have still lost a couple of key lineouts on their throw and given up penalties too. Still, the positive progress is encouraging for Farrell, while the scrum appears to be in good condition under John Fogarty.

andy-farrell Dan Sheridan / INPHO Farrell's team need a convincing win before the Scotland and England games. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland’s kicking game has been up-and-down in terms of its success under Farrell so far and that is another area he will feel must be more consistent.

Coming into the Italy game, all of these things will be as important as selection in Farrell’s mind, which is sure to be vexed at the moment. 

The Italians are on a Six Nations losing streak that dates back to 2015 but have shown hints of attacking progress against France and England in recent weeks, while they were deeply frustrated with some of the refereeing decisions that went against them versus Eddie Jones’ side. 

France and England both started their strongest available teams in those games and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Farrell goes for something similar.

Ireland should have far too much quality for Italy and Farrell could really use a convincing, confidence-boosting victory in Rome in two weekends’ time.

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