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'If we can add three gems out of this to our squad then we are in business'

Andy Farrell has named four uncapped players to play the USA tomorrow – with one eye on next season’s demanding schedule.

Image: ©INPHO

ON A WARM July afternoon, stuck inside his secure Covid-free bunker, the Ireland head coach was quizzed by 15 adults about the education of a youthful bunch. It was like a parent teacher meeting on zoom.

One by one, the names were thrown at Andy Farrell and one by one he delivered his end-of-term report.

First came the debutant, Robert Baloucoune: “We all know about Rob, he’s super quick. He’d be the quickest in the squad, that’s for sure. His rugby knowledge is coming along all the time, he’s learning more; his defence has really come on, his high ball stuff is really good, he’s finding a way of getting involved in the attack as well. The potential is there for him so we’re super excited about that.”

Next, James Hume: “I haven’t worked with James before. He’s a big strong lad; his appetite and his work-rate are great but his skill level is good as well. He’s working hard on his communication and his distribution skills, and that’s getting better. We’ve been very impressed in training. It’s about taking that onto the field now.”

Gavin Coombes? “Gav’s naturally very comfortable at No8. We wanted to put Gavin, for his first (international) start, into a position that he’s able to be himself.”

Nick Timoney, Farrell asserted, was “a bright kid who gets the details straight away”. “He has fitted in, he understands things, how we want to play and he’s explosive, quick and a good defender”.

nick-timoney Nick Timoney during training yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Then came the question of Ryan Baird and whether he was best suited to the second-row or the back-row. Sooner rather than later the question will really be whether he is best suited to the starting XV on a permanent basis. “To tie Ryan down to one position I suppose would be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Farrell is clearly a fan of the Leinster player. “He is super keen to impress, but yeah, he’s got to keep progressing in all the nuts the bolts. The nuts and bolts from what we want from a forward as well, is his catch-pass, his decision-making, his tempo running, his quality of ruck decision-making.

“All of those bits are what’s being assessed on a daily basis. We know what type of athlete he is.”

Then, from nowhere, came the line of the day.

This team he has picked is experimental, even though it doesn’t appear that way given how prominent the newcomers have been with their provinces, particularly Coombes. Four players will make their debuts, three others their first starts. More than that, though, it’s a team without Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls or Jacob Stockdale – a team for the future.

andy-farrell Andy Farrell at training yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I hope we have whetted the appetite of a good few players,” said Farrell, “because if we can get three, four or five gems out of this, that are serious contenders to add to our squad next season, then we’d be well-pleased with that, we are in business.”

That, more than any scoreline against Japan and the US, will be the only result that should matter.

When you think back to Ireland’s grand slam victory in 2009 – it’s hard to believe how few changes Declan Kidney had to make. Only 19 starters featured in that Six Nations and the four changes came around by choice rather than necessity.

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That sort of thing rarely happens anymore, a point Farrell more or less admitted to when he spoke at a different stage of the interview about getting five or six players competing for a position on the team. It’s not that long ago when an Ireland coach would have been happy to have had two options.

In fact to get an idea of the current depth around, the coach had to pull Tom Daly, Ross Molony and Peter Dooley aside yesterday for a quiet word. All three have been in camp throughout this series; none will leave it with a cap.

“I have got to do what’s right for the team and for the player. I hope that the guys that have not played understand that… well, first of all I hope that they’ve enjoyed the experience, they’ve done unbelievably well to get into the room and it looks like they’ve loved the experience. We give them feedback of where we think they’re at but also it isn’t about getting just one cap is it? 

“It’s about making sure that you’re good enough to get back in the room consistently. Like I said before, can we get 10 caps out of them? Can we get 15 and then push onto 20 so I hope these three weeks has been that way for most of the player within the squad.”

More than anything, though, he hopes this is a start rather than a finish.

“What you would like,” said Farrell, “is for a lot of reflection, an appetite to improve in all aspects of the game – certainly skill-wise and physically like everyone does in a pre-season because the season starts off with a bang.

“There is a lot to play for next season; the United Rugby Championship, four Autumn Internationals, Champions Cup, the Six Nations and a Test series in New Zealand, it doesn’t really get any better.”

He’ll need a squad for all that; not just a team. Tomorrow is when the foundation blocks get set. 

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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