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The Ireland team named today can form the basis of the side for the next decade

Andy Farrell opted for youth and power in the the team named to take on the USA on Saturday.

Fresh face: Gavin Coombes in training.
Fresh face: Gavin Coombes in training.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT WASN’T SO much a team selection as a trailer for the 2023 World Cup. Everything about it – the four new caps on the starting XV, a further four on the bench – smacked of a future-proofing project.

You’ve a captain who is still only 24, a starting line-up where all bar Stuart McCloskey, Andrew Conway and Dave Kilcoyne are aged 25 or younger, and probably the most athletic pack Irish rugby has ever seen.

All eight are dynamic ball carriers – and while the US Eagles are unlikely to test their resolve in other departments, that shouldn’t dilute from our interest in the experiment.

Since Japan 2019, Irish rugby has been looking backwards, not just to that World Cup but also the successful year that preceded it. Now, on the back of this side named for Saturday’s final Test of the season, people’s eyes are glancing to the future.

Could this be the nucleus of the team to take on the world in France, two years from now? The age profile of the side would tempt you to believe so but there’s little doubt the seven Lions in South Africa will have their own opinion on that issue. And that’s before we mention Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy or Keith Earls, men who made their debuts in a 12-month period between 2008 and 2009 and who have persistently overcome setbacks and injuries since.

keith-earls-scores-a-try-that-is-later-disallowed Keith Earls still has plenty to offer Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In other words, they aren’t likely to go away quietly. Nor, for that matter, will Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Porter, Garry Ringrose, Rob Herring, Jacob Stockdale, Will Connors, Simon Zebo, Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Leavy or Josh van der Flier. Between those players mentioned in the above couple of paragraphs, and the 23 selected for Saturday’s Test, Andy Farrell has a serious bit of talent to select from.

 “We are unbelievably happy with the depth,” said Farrell earlier this afternoon. “But it is the competition now, isn’t it? It is people going home after this window, having a really good think over the summer about whether they consistently want to be back in the room and be, not just a one-cap player, or a five-capper, but can they have the hunger, consistency and know-how to get themselves to 30 caps. That is the type of attitude we want.”

More to the point, it is the type of attitude Farrell needs as next season promises to be one of the most demanding in the professional era, an autumn series bringing the All Blacks to town, as well as three other internationals; winter and spring providing us with the Six Nations, the summer with a tour to New Zealand.

When that all finishes, the World Cup really comes into view. “As a coach you are always about the here and now, the next competition that is down the line,” said Farrell, “a little bit (of an eye) on the future as well. Growing competition is the key. If we have got five or six players in each position that are really, really competing against each other, then the World Cup two years from now will start looking after itself.”

With this squad, you sense he’ll get close to his objective. Newbies, Robert Baloucoune, Nick Timoney, James Hume and Tom O’Toole, may all have come from Ulster, but they’ve arrived at this point via different directions; Baloucoune after a stint in the Ireland Sevens programme, Timoney after failing to make it at Leinster and then losing his way for a period last season.

A few sessions with a sports psychologist altered his focus – and his performance levels – while O’Toole has also had to overcome some mental scars, an early career schooling by Connacht’s Denis Buckley threatening to undermine his confidence.

tom-otoole Tom O'Toole is a dynamic ball carrier. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Instead it was boosted within a week, the former Ulster No8, Marcell Coetzee, standing up at the Monday morning review following that Connacht game to point out that he – and others – hadn’t pushed hard enough.

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Since then O’Toole has persistently been pushing for an international slot; Farrell a long-term fan of his, admiring what he can deliver away from a scrum, not just what he provides in it. Then there’s the outside centre, Hume. You only have to watch his try against Leinster in the 2019/20 Pro14 final to figure out how he caught the Irish coach’s eye.

“Coming into an international camp for the first time is pretty daunting because you have been so used to one way of playing and it is so ingrained in you in how you play for your province,” said Farrell. “Now all of a sudden, you have new calls, new teammates, and it can be difficult to go about your work within six or seven days to perform at your best. It takes time to be able to get really good at that so I’m looking to see whether the newcomers can deliver for the team.”

If they can, then Ireland really are in business, because the spine of that 2018 grand slam winning team is aging. Rory Best, Rob Kearney and CJ Stander are already gone from it; Sexton, Healy and Earls have a lot of mileage on the clock, likewise Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony.

And while the underlying feeling is that the team has evolved quite a bit from the Schmidt era, a glance at the team sheets from his final game in 2019, and this year’s Six Nations win over England, tells a different story. The wider squad may have changed; the first XV largely hadn’t.

That’s why this team selection is, in a way, one of the most interesting of the Farrell era. Ronan Kelleher, Tom O’Toole, James Ryan, Ryan Baird, Timoney, Gavin Coombes and Caelan Doris are all explosive in the carry; Dave Kilcoyne isn’t too shabby, either. Then you have the additional power provided by midfielders Hume and Stuart McCloskey, the continued rehabilitation of Joey Carbery at out-half, the furthering of 21-year-old scrum-half Craig Casey’s education.

Only two members of the squad – Ryan and Kilcoyne – have more than 30 caps to their name; 19 have won 15 caps or fewer.

It augurs well – not just for the weekend but the rest of the decade.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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