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Ireland winger Jordan Larmour and scrum-half Craig Casey.
Ireland winger Jordan Larmour and scrum-half Craig Casey.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Rome offers a perfect stage for Ireland's attack to cut loose

Andy Farrell has called for his team to show a clinical edge against Italy.
Feb 26th 2021, 8:00 AM 12,301 31

IT IS HARD to fathom how an Ireland backline littered with so much talent has looked so toothless recently, the reward for all that possession against Wales – with only 14 men – and France a return of just two tries, the lowest tally of any team in the Six Nations so far.

More concerning is that for all the talk of missed opportunities, they haven’t exactly left a bundle of scores behind them. The coaches have put that down to poor decision making and communication. The message from above is clearly that it is the players who need to step up and deliver.

Farrell’s response is to make seven changes to his starting team for tomorrow’s trip to Rome, including an all-Leinster backline. 

It should be the perfect setting to boost confidence in the squad, even if we are led to believe that that isn’t an issue

Italy are not as bad as the stats suggest, but they are also not a team that should be troubling this Ireland side. For all the signs of growth in their attack, they remain suspect defensively, slipping off tackles or just outright switching off while conceding 13 tries to France and England.

Ireland will get the chances they need to win this game. 

“I think there’s been quite a lot right (in the games against Wales and France) but it all comes down to having a clinical edge at this level, right at the top,” says Farrell.

“Our fight, our want, our will to impose ourselves against the opposition has been top class. 

“The clinical edge – the finishing clinical edge – is obviously the missing part of the ingredient for any side that wants to be world class. That’s what we’re striving for and hopefully we can make a jump in that direction this week.”

Ireland have struggled to create under the looser, unstructured style of rugby we’ve heard so much about recently.

Enter Jordan Larmour, ‘heads-up’ rugby incarnate. 

Once the most exciting young player in Irish rugby, the 23-year-old will feel he has something to prove. It’s a little over a year since he last started a game for Ireland. A shoulder injury kept him out of the autumn internationals, but the wonderkid has yet to fully deliver on his potential at this level.

It is possible his versatility has held him back as he flits between wing and fullback, including a few cameos off the bench at centre. Of his 26 caps, only 11 have come in the starting team, and you have to go all the way back to the 2019 World Cup warm-ups to find the last time he started an Ireland game on the wing.

The emergence of Hugo Keenan as a reliable option at fullback could now ease the path for Larmour to stake his claim on the wing and become a key player for this team. 

“Wing has become a position like 13 used to be, the position when everyone used to say it was a very tricky position to be able to defend and attack and have good decision making regarding that position over the years, but wing has become a crucial part of the jigsaw for making sure that all sorts of stuff knits together regarding your defence, your backfield, your counter-attack,” Farrell says.

“So, there’s a lot of know-how that needs to unfold for somebody to be top-class in that position and Jordan is across all of that, he’s learning that and he’s getting better at that but what that can’t do is get in the way of what his point of difference is, and that’s being himself.” 

Attack, of course, is only half the battle. Larmour only has to glance across the pitch to be reminded of how important the defensive side of things is for players like him at this level, given how costly some of James Lowe’s decision-making on the other side of the ball has been.

Larmour has heard those criticisms before.

“Yeah, he’s come on (defensively),” Farrell continues.

“Obviously, it’s always going to be a work in progress for all wingers with decision making in that regard. It’s a tough one, because you’re the last man standing many times so it’s always tough to get it right (all the time), but at this level you’ve got to get it right more than not.”  

Lowe will be similarly eager to impress. The Leinster wing is a more direct and powerful option than Larmour – as evidenced in his disallowed try against France – but has had limited opportunities to get his running game going.

Instead we’ve grown accustomed to the sight of Lowe using the most talked about left boot in Irish sport since Ian Harte to push his team up the field.

Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the reason Lowe was lured to this part of the world.

“James brings something to our side that probably others don’t, a left foot for starters – that’s the obvious one, but a big strong ball-carrying runner who is dynamic in taking people on, not just on the edges but down the middle as well,” Farrell says.

“He’s the type of winger who looks to get his hands on the ball and we want that. If you’ve got a winger like that in your game then it certainly helps the forwards out along the way to get you that quick ball that you’re after.”  

It’s only two years since Ireland were the top-ranked side in the world. Their spirit and fight is still very much evident, yet they have, at times, looked worryingly limited without the structure and detail of the glory Joe Schmidt years to fall back on.

A lot of the faces are the same. Captain Johnny Sexton lines out for his 97th cap tomorrow. Robbie Henshaw, who is playing some of the best rugby of his career, continues at centre alongside Garry Ringrose, another attacking gem.

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In the pack, Iain Henderson’s excellent form has been rewarded with a new contract, CJ Stander continues to selflessly carry all day long and Tadhg Furlong is finding his feet again after a long lay-off. And given it’s been the word of the week, it’s worth pointing out that most of that pack have been known to throw an offload or two, too.

That experience is complimented by a batch of genuinely exciting young players, such as the uncapped Craig Casey and Ryan Baird on the bench. Rónan Kelleher gets his first Six Nations start at hooker, Hugo Keenan has already made fullback his own and Will Connors’ potential is clear to see. 

hugo-keenan-is-tackled-by-arthur-vincent-and-damian-penaud Hugo Keenan has impressed at fullback. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

These are dream players for a coach who wants to play an open, attacking game. Some of them would be considered world class. Others have the potential to reach that level some day.

“You have to be a team-first player, and if you are a team-first player, which our guys are, and you gel together then you start to get world-class players on the back of that,” Farrell says.

“And that’s where we’re at, at this moment in time. Of course we’ve got world-class players within our group but as a unit, the stronger that we get, the more individuals will come to the forefront.”

A convincing win tomorrow won’t teach the Ireland head coach much about his players or erase any of the big questions which still hang over this team, but it would at least straighten up the rudder and turn the ship back in the right direction.

The players have been united in the message that they are building towards something special. There’s few better cities than Rome to cut loose.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Ciarán Kennedy

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