Farrell is into his second year in charge of Ireland. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Farrell excited by 'great squad' and backs those lacking game time to get up to speed

The head coach believes he has named a strong squad even if several players are short of game time

IT HAS SOMETIMES been the case that Ireland fans viewed the Six Nations years when England and France came to Dublin as being favourable.

That isn’t so in 2021. Firstly, the lack of supporters has reduced the effect of ‘home advantage’ and, secondly, the French and English are both looking in very strong shape even with a few injuries to their squads.

Andy Farrell’s Ireland also have visits to Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Rome to contend with this year, but the Ireland head coach is hoping his side are still in the trophy hunt when Eddie Jones’ England come to Dublin on the final day of the championship on 20 March. 

“We want to be in the last week with something to play for, definitely,” said Farrell during yesterday’s online Six Nations launch when asked what Ireland’s target is.

“The bigger picture is for us to get back up to the standard that we aspire to be at. That standard, at the minute, is being hit by a couple of teams – you talk about France and England being favourites, we’ve got to try and earn the right to get back in that bracket.”

Farrell believes his 36-man Ireland squad – he confirmed they can bring players in and out of the squad if required – for this championship is stronger than the one he was working with last autumn when they finished third in the Autumn Nations Cup. 

Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, Tom O’Toole, Garry Ringrose, and Jordan Larmour are all back in the mix after injury, although Jacob Stockdale is missing until the third round game against Italy at least.  

Farrell has also called up experienced back row Rhys Ruddock and uncapped 21-year-old scrum-half Craig Casey on the back of their good form from Leinster and Munster, respectively.

“It’s a great squad, we’re really pleased with it,” said Farrell as he indicated that Johnny Sexton, James Lowe, Iain Henderson, and everyone else is currently on course to be available for the opener against Wales.

irelands-garry-ringrose Garry Ringrose is back after missing the Autumn Nations Cup. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Captain Sexton’s hamstring injury against Munster last weekend was badly-timed but the 35-year-old expects to recover in time. If not, Farrell stressed that he has faith in Billy Burns and Ross Byrne at out-half.

“They’re here on merit,” said Farrell. “They haven’t got many caps between them but in the time that they’ve had over the last year, it has been unbelievably valuable to them and we’ve seen the growth internally and we expect to see it continue externally as well.”

Farrell confirmed that Ireland’s leadership group remains unchanged for this championship, with Sexton joined by Ringrose, Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, and the returning Furlong.

The Wexford man is set to make his long-awaited return after 11 months out of action for Leinster on Saturday against Scarlets before linking in with Ireland on Sunday.

Furlong is, obviously, desperately short of game time, while others like Lowe, Henderson, Andrew Conway, Kilcoyne, and Bundee Aki also come into camp without many, or any, minutes in their legs recently.

“Obviously, you’d love everyone to have had game time but rugby is not usually like that,” said Farrell. “It’s a bit different now regarding the fact that there has been some downtime regarding the schedule and then you throw into the mix people’s fitness.

“But like all the squads in the Six Nations, they would back themselves to get those players up to speed as soon as possible in their environment.”

Predicting Ireland’s XV for the first game against Wales doesn’t feel too difficult right now, although it will be fascinating to see what back three Farrell and his coaches settle on. 

Larmour started the 2020 Six Nations as first-choice fullback before Stockdale shifted into the role during the autumn when the Leinster man was injured. Hugo Keenan has also played there for Ireland and has been excellent for Leinster recently, with Farrell indicating he is the favourite to start in the number 15 shirt.

hugo-keenan Hugo Keenan is favourite to start at fullback. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“You’d love continuity but it’s up to the performance of the player. Obviously, the more experience we can give guys, the more chance they’ve got of nailing down that position. But that can’t really go against what a proper Test match performance should look like.

“The obvious one is Hugo is playing pretty well in that slot at this moment in time, Jordan has been playing on the wing. [Munster's] Mike Haley has played very well and he’s unlucky not to make the squad.

“I’m open-minded enough but at the same time conscious enough we need continuity there.”

Of course, there will be change off the pitch for Ireland during this campaign with the arrival of Paul O’Connell as forwards coach.

That addition to the coaching staff means Simon Easterby will concentrate on defence, while John Fogarty continues as scrum specialist, and Richie Murphy drives the skills and kicking side of Ireland’s prep.

“The main remit for Paul to come into our environment is to make the group better,” said Farrell. “He’s certainly going to add just by being himself.

“On top of that, he’s going to make the coaching staff stronger as well. We’re an integrated coaching staff that bounce off each other. Obviously, coaches have got their roles and responsibilities but the main responsibility is to the team.”

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