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The five key issues facing Ireland against Wales tonight

The Autumn Nations Cup gives Andy Farrell the chance to perfect his game-plan after an inconsistent Six Nations, writes Garry Doyle.

Dejected Ireland players react to France defeat.
Dejected Ireland players react to France defeat.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Nov 13th 2020, 3:00 PM

What does Andy Farrell’s Ireland stand for?

ASIDE FROM THE national anthem, we can’t yet say. Throughout the spring, we kept hearing how much more fun training had become since winter had gone and taken Joe Schmidt with it.

It wasn’t the only change. Tactically we were told there would be a giant leap across the theoretical chamber, the ruck-obsessed Schmidt game-plan giving way to Farrell’s more expressive, offloading strategy. And it seemed to make sense, this policy rewrite given how 2019 had unfolded.

But has 2020 been that much better? The Scotland win was fortunate; the value of a Wales scalp in 2020 is considerably less than the 2019 version and while the 50-17 victory over Italy was comprehensive, what else would you have expected?

On the road there were times – the final quarter in Twickenham, the first half in Paris – when Ireland put together some impressive passages of play but in the remainder of those two games, you had to wonder if the level of tactical advice was as detailed as it used to be under Joe.

A case in point was the championship defining game, Antoine Dupont’s opening try resulting from a communications breakdown that left tighthead Andrew Porter to defend a one-on-one situation with France wing, Gael Fickou.

antoine-dupont-scores-the-opening-try Antoine Dupont scores France's opening try. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

The third French try was even worse – a Johnny Sexton Garryowen leading to a swift counter-attack where Caelan Doris was outnumbered on the right flank, as Fickou, Dupont and try-scorer Romain Ntamack exploited a dubious kick-chase strategy.

Still, there has to be balance. Farrell has only had five games in charge and has won three of those. Schmidt, remember, lost two of his opening three internationals, albeit against top-class opposition, with the quality of his team’s 2013 display against the All Blacks putting credit in his account.

In this respect, the new coach could do with some big performances over the next month to make his own balance statement look a bit healthier – and the arrival of James Lowe should help irrespective of the canyon-like gap from the Pro14 to international rugby.

At least tonight against Wales [KO 7pm, RTÉ / Channel 4] we will finally get a glimpse of what life in the post Murray-Sexton era will look like – and not before time, as Murray is a pale resemblance of the Conor Murray circa 2016 while Sexton is now 35 and can’t go on forever.

Still a great competitor, the Ireland captain is not much of a running threat – well he never really was – which is a key reason why he needs his scrum half to fill that void. John Cooney is deadly around the fringes, so too Craig Casey and Kieran Marmion, so it is a bit of a surprise that Jamison Gibson-Park was allowed jump the queue.

Let’s give the Leinster combo the benefit of the doubt, though. The pairing may work. Something needs to.  Ireland have lacked consistency for too long now and need a spark from somewhere.

Taking Stock

In the history of international rugby, only seven Irishmen have scored more tries than Jacob Stockdale, which is an impressive enough stat before you even consider that his debut came as recently as June 2017.

So you kind of get it when a coaching team opts to stand by their man, not least because the Robbie Henshaw experiment at full-back started and ended over 80 painful minutes in February 2019 while you hardly need reminding of the number of candles on Rob Kearney’s birthday cake. Add in the fact that Jordan Larmour and Will Addison are injured and you can kind of see why Stockdale will be the one wearing 15 on his back tonight.

It needs to go better for him than it did in the Stade de France, though, when Stockdale wasn’t just out of position for three of France’s four tries but in a different Parisian postcode. 

jacob-stockdale-is-tackled-in-the-air-by-gael-fickou Flying high in 2018, Stockdale has lost form recently. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Some say he is suffering a crisis of confidence; others that it is a concentration issue. But against France, two weeks ago, and England when Elliot Daly scored in the 2019 Six Nations opener, it was simply a pick-the-ball-up-off-the-ground issue.

Still, let’s remember that in 2018 Ireland wouldn’t have won a Grand Slam or defeated the All Blacks without him. Can his management of the backfield and positional play improve? Well this is what the Irish coaching team are paid to do.

If they fail in their quest, then they’d be well advised to pick up the phone and dial Simon Zebo’s number.

Is Sexton a suitable captain?

The short answer is yes; the longer answer is yes, of course he bloody is. All this fuss about him shaking his head after he was subbed against the French reminds you of the time Ricky Hatton got asked about the roughhouse tactics he used to defeat Kosta Tszyu and become world champion.

“Well,” Hatton replied, “it’s not a tickling competition, is it?”

Nor is international rugby captaincy a study in diplomacy. If excessive politeness is what you crave from leaders then may I point you in the direction of Seasons One and Two of The Crown on Netflix. You should get your fill of that guff there.

Even if there was a suitable alternative to Sexton as captain – Peter O’Mahony is no longer guaranteed a starting slot, James Ryan is too quiet, Garry Ringrose too injured – there is certainly not a suitable alternative at out-half. So imagine Farrell – a new head coach, schooled in the say-it-as-it-is culture of Wigan in the ’90s – sacking his skipper because of an ill-judged scowl.

Maturely, the Ireland coach dealt with the situation well, knowing his team is best served with a competitor like Sexton as captain. “Johnny will be fine,” scrum coach, John Fogarty, said yesterday.  ”How he preps, the standards he drives, he has a will to win that is infectious at times. Sometimes it spills over but it is that competitive edge that drives some players on…I don’t worry about Johnny.”

Nor should he. There are enough things for Ireland to be concerned with.

jonathan-sexton-leaves-the-field-after-being-replaced Sexton unhappily leaves the field in Paris. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

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Are Wales one of those?

Not when you look at their 2020 form. They have lost five on the spin, lost their defence coach last weekend and have completely lost the aura they held under Warren Gatland. “If we keep working hard, we believe we can turn this around,” said their head coach Wayne Pivac on Wednesday.

The clock may already be ticking on him, though. At yesterday’s press conference, Alun Wyn Jones was asked questions about player unrest and who was responsible for the downward turn of events. Those sort of queries only ever come in times of crisis.

That is where Wales are right now, struggling to adjust to life after Warrenball, struggling at the breakdown, where they conceded 11 penalties against the Scots. “We need to start winning soon, there’s no doubt about that,” said Pivac after the Scotland defeat. It puts Ireland’s situation in perspective.

Managing to make change and continuity rhyme

One of the things Farrell has done well in his opening year is to promote understudies and integrate new players into his set-up without ever making this evolution feel like a revolution.

There has been a lot of change – James Lowe will become his eighth debutant tonight, replacement Billy Burns may well be the ninth – but it has always felt like a seamless transition from one team selection to the next.

Check out tonight’s team. You have Ronan Kelleher making his first start yet he’s doing so in familiar surroundings, an all Leinster front row there to keep him company.

It’s a similar situation for Gibson-Park, Leinster colleagues Doris and Sexton providing familiar faces at No8 and out-half for the scrum-half who wins just his third cap.  

Stockdale, Keenan and Lowe may sound like an estate agency; in fact they are Ireland’s back three, a debutant going in with a guy winning his third cap and another fella who is starting an international at full back for just the third time.

And you can see what Farrell is aiming at, trying to make change and continuity rhyme, opting for players who possess serious athletic ability, Kelleher an embodiment of this team’s new-look.

“Ronan is certainly someone we have huge belief in,” says Fogarty. “He’s an excellent ball carrier, an excellent defender and he’s strong in the set piece.

“The kid is young, and while there’s always going to be some patience with younger players, the thing is that he’s going to set himself some high standards. We expect him to perform as well.

“So definitely there’s a road that you go on, every game is a little bit different, the pressures of international rugby are a little bit different. It’s a journey we all go on.”

So far in 2020 they’ve hit a few potholes. But sports people do, Arnold Palmer famously noted. The road to success, Arnie told us, is always under construction.

Teams

Ireland

15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Hugo Keenan
13. Chris Farrell
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Cian Healy
2. Ronan Kelleher
3. Andrew Porter
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Caelan Doris

Replacements:

 16. Dave Heffernan

17. Ed Byrne

18. Finlay Bealham
19. Quinn Roux
20. Will Connors
21. Conor Murray
22. Billy Burns
23. Keith Earls

Wales (caps in brackets)

15. Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets) (91 Caps)
14. Liam Williams (Scarlets) (64 Caps)
13. Jonathan Davies (Scarlets) (83 Caps)
12. Owen Watkin (Ospreys) (23 Caps)
11. Josh Adams (Cardiff Blues) (26 Caps)
10. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints) (85 Caps)
9. Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (55 Caps)

1. Rhys Carre (Cardiff Blues (10 Caps)
2. Ryan Elias (Scarlets) (15 Caps)
3. Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (49 Caps)
4. Will Rowlands (Wasps) (2 Caps)
5. Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) (140 Caps) (CAPT)
6. Shane Lewis-Hughes (Cardiff Blues) (1 Cap)
7. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (77 Caps)
8. Taulupe Faletau (Bath) (78 Caps)

Replacements

16. Elliot Dee (Dragons) (29 Caps)
17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets) (26 Caps)
18. Samson Lee (Scarlets) (42 Caps)
19. Jake Ball (Scarlets) (46 Caps)
20. Aaron Wainwright (Dragons) (23 Caps)
21. Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues) (28 Caps)
22. Callum Sheedy (Bristol) (*Uncapped)
23. George North (Ospreys) (96 Caps)

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR].

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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