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Ireland beware? No, only shock involving Georgia was when Biden beat Trump

Ireland are light years ahead of Georgia but today’s game gives an opportunity for the support-cast to stake a claim for permanent inclusion in Andy Farrell’s side.

Billy Burns has a chance to show today there is life after Johnny Sexton.
Billy Burns has a chance to show today there is life after Johnny Sexton.
Image: PA

LONG BEFORE SIMON Cowell came up with the idea of The X-Factor; before The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent, the world of reality TV revolved around this insufferable programme called Stars in their Eyes.

The format was simple; Joe or Josephine Soap would be briefly interviewed by the host, Matthew Kelly, talk about the drudgery of their nine-to-five life and then disappear through smoky doors before re-emerging dressed to the nines as the star they were about to impersonate.

And yes, the show was as bad as it sounds.  

Little did we know when ITV finally ditched it off their schedule that Irish rugby would end up running a sequel in the 2010s – only in this programme there was only one part the prospective hopefuls auditioned for.

“Tonight, Matthew I’m going to be Johnny Sexton.”

Here’s hoping. Since around 2013, no other country has been as dependent on their No10 since the Argentinean FA bought Diego Maradona his plane ticket to Mexico.

Along the way, there have been a variety of stand-ins. Ronan O’Gara got old; Ian Madigan got sold on the idea of a life in France; Paddy Jackson got sacked; Joey Carbery got hurt, recovered, got hurt again, recovered, got hurt again.

Next out of the queue was Ross Byrne. Between them Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell have handed him nine caps but just two starts – each of them against England at Twickenham. Cheers for that, lads.

So, today’s stand-in, Billy Burns, should be thankful for small mercies. He should get things comparatively easy today because let’s face it the only shock result involving Georgia this year was when Joe Biden flipped the state blue.

You know what you get with the Georgians (kick-off 2pm, RTE). Scrummaging wise, they’re top-notch, highlighted by the fact that nearly half the Georgian pros who have made a living in France have been front-row specialists. Throw in the half-back pairing who play for Jeremy Davidson’s Brive and you get a sense of where we’re going here.

There is much to admire about their team and yet there are also some uncomfortable truths. In 23 internationals against Tier One nations, Georgia have returned 23 defeats. In four games against Ireland, they came close to a shock at the 2007 World Cup, but otherwise have been hammered. 

Over the last few years, as Italy descended from bad to dreadful, there has been a campaign of sorts to get them promoted to the Six Nations. Well, you’re not likely to hear those dissenters shout so loudly after November ends. Across the last five weeks, they’ve lost 48-7 to Scotland, 40-0 to England and 18-0 to Wales.

rhys-webb-scores-a-try Georgia lost 18-0 to Wales last week. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

Still, when nearly half their playing squad is stuck in the semi-pro game in Georgia, when the additional issues of lockdown and inactivity are factored in, the surprise is not that they were beaten so heavily but that they actually put up as good a show as they did.

None of this should really concern Burns. In fact, there isn’t too much he should be worried about, for this really is an opportunity for the Ulster out-half to put his hand up and show Andy Farrell he can be trusted if 35-year-old Sexton ever decides to grow old.

Of all the selections this week, Finlay Bealham at loosehead, Tadhg Beirne at blindside, Stuart McCloskey at 12, the one that really stood out and made you think was the choice of Conor Murray at scrum-half.

Why him? Why after 90 tests, including five with the Lions, does Farrell need to see what he can do against a team who spent the first half of this international year in competition with Romania, Spain, Belgium and Portugal?

And the answer lies in the man he is sharing the controls with. Farrell wants to see how Burns and Murray work in tandem. “Looking at Conor with his experience, regarding Billy starting his first game – that’s always going to be interesting for us,” said Farrell earlier this week when he was quizzed about his selection.

irelands-conor-murray-and-englands-henry-slade Murray is back in the starting line-up today after being a replacement last week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Ireland head coach has spent 2020 looking for a fresh identity, the presence of nine new caps helping with the search. The problem has been when they’ve faced off against better sides, England (twice) and France. Suddenly the issue of transferring plans from the drawing board to the pitch has been exposed.

“Ireland were awful in the Six Nations and the World Cup last year. They are not a good side now,” wrote Stuart Barnes in his Times column last week. Only a win against a top four side, South Africa, New Zealand, England or France, will lead to a re-evaluation of that status.

As for today, they can only do so much. “We want to be a cohesive unit (in the pack),” said scrum coach, John Fogarty yesterday. “We want to be as eight; we want a shared mentality in what we are doing as well and not be distracted.”

That should be straightforward enough if they negate Georgia’s powerful front row and set the terms and conditions when it comes to the crouch and the bind at scrum-time. The return of Rob Herring and Iain Henderson at hooker and lock respectively – not to mention the absence of Maro Itoje staring right back at the thrower- should make today’s line-out puzzle a lot easier to solve than the conundrum they faced at Twickenham.

After that, you can see how this will pan out. Ireland will kick a fair amount to force the Georgian defence to retreat and then, once space opens up, will give the back three of Stockdale, Earls and Keenan the chance to have a bit of fun.

All year, Farrell has talked about his team playing ‘heads up rugby’, conscious that the team had become predictable last year due to their addiction to the box-kick. So, while much of the focus will be on Stockdale to see how he is coping with his recent jitters; on McCloskey to find out if can hack it at this level; at Bealham in the set-piece, Beirne at the breakdown, really the biggest lesson from today is whether Burns can handle the pressure of being Sexton’s back-up.

“Billy has been great in and around the camp,” said Fogarty at yesterday’s captain’s run. “As a person, he has slotted in really well. As a player, there are no issues there.

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“In terms of coping with the pressures, I don’t think we would have thrown him in there if we did not think he would able to deal with them.

“He controls things really well; he’s a good communicator so there are no issues there at all.”

What about stepping into Johnny’s shoes? “That’s not something we are worried about at all and it won’t have entered Billy’s mind, either. Billy has prepped really well and he has got a few familiar faces beside him. Johnny has helped him during the week, delivered some really good stuff to the team and Billy has controlled the week really well.”

That’s in training. Match day – even a match as unattractive as a behind-closed-doors tie in a tournament that has all the mystique of English soccer’s LDV Vans Trophy – is different. We’ll find out something about Billy Burns today as well as rediscovering what we already know, that the one thing Ireland remain really good at is their ability to easily defeat the teams they’re meant to beat.

Ireland:

15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Hugo Keenan
13. Chris Farrell
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Keith Earls
10. Billy Burns
9. Conor Murray

1. Finlay Bealham
2. Rob Herring
3. Andrew Porter
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan (captain)
6. Tadhg Beirne
7. Will Connors
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan 
17. Cian Healy
18. John Ryan
19. Quinn Roux
20. Peter O’Mahony
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Ross Byrne
23. Shane Daly

Georgia

15: Soso Matiashvili;

14: Akaki Tabutsadze

13: Giorgi Kveseladze

12: Merab Sharikadze (captain)

11: Tamaz Mchedlidze

10: Tedo Abzhandadze

9: Vasil Lobzhanidze

1: Mikheil Nariashvili

2: Shalva Mamukashvili

3: Beka Gigashvili

4: Nodar Cheishvili

5: Lasha Jaiani

6: Beka Saginadze

7: Tornike Jalagonia

8: Beka Gorgadze.

Replacements: Giorgi Chkoidze, Lexo Kaulashvili, Giorgi Melikidze, Giorgi Javakhia, Mikheil Gachechiladze, Mikheil Alania, Demur Tapladze, David Niniashvili.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR].


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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