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Lancaster: Ireland can benefit from stability in Six Nations

Head coach Andy Farrell included 16 Leinster players in his 37-man squad for the tournament.

Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster.
Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

STUART LANCASTER BELIEVES Ireland are in a good place heading into the Six Nations, noting stability in selection as a key area working in Andy Farrell’s favour.

Lancaster spent four years as England head coach between 2011 and 2015, and says the challenge of striking the right balance when picking from a large pool of players was one of the more challenging aspects of his job.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has a much smaller group of players to select from, but Lancaster feels that that familiarity and continuity in selection could be a positive for Ireland this year – particularly on the back of a strong showing during the November internationals – with England opting for a slightly more experimental squad and France currently hit by a number of Covid cases. 

“One of the challenges with England was obviously you have 12 teams (in the Premiership), and usually the spread was, not even, but usually there was three or four from most of the top-end clubs, certainly the top eight,” Lancaster explains.

“The challenge for me at the time; I remember when I first took over, the sort of top teams were Saracens, Bath, Northampton and Leicester but all four of them played differently, very differently and they all clearly believed in the way that they are playing because they had achieved success, to get to Premiership semi-finals and finals.

“So what you faced was trying to merge those different opinions on how the game should be played from a player’s perspective to ‘right, this is the way we’re going to play’ and you’re trying to take the best of all of the teams where the players come from which is a challenge when you have so many teams.

“In Ireland obviously having only four teams which are all different in their own way, but a lot of the emphasis is similar, in the way in which the teams are coached which is why the games are so competitive.

So I think for Andy it’s a real strength. In terms of balance from one side, you can see the Ulster players, the Munster players and the Connacht players getting rewarded for their form. That’s the nature of the beast in Ireland. The challenge is to create a team that has cohesion and can execute because it’s a results-based business.

“The one thing I’d say in Ireland’s benefit is they have stability in selection, stability in the coaching and a great November Series to bounce off the back of whereas other teams, you look at other teams, France, they made what 10 changes (to their squad) today (Monday); England have obviously got some new players coming in who have not been in the international environment before so I think Ireland are in a good place.

“From a national perspective with England, it definitely was a challenge for sure.”

johnny-sexton Leinster Johnny Sexton will once again captain Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While Farrell has been quick to introduce new faces – capping 12 new players in 2021 – there was a settled look to his Ireland squad last week, with Connacht’s Mack Hansen and Ulster fullback Mike Lowry the only two uncapped players to make the cut.

Otherwise the bulk of the squad will be extremely familiar with each other, with 16 Leinster players included in the 37-man selection. 

“There’s a company called Gainline Analytics and it looks at team cohesion and basically their premise is the team that has the most experience of playing together generally comes out on top when all things are equal,” Lancaster continues.

It’s not necessarily club combinations, you can have international combinations, so you’d like to say Conor Murray and Johnny (Sexton), even though they don’t play at the same club, they know each other inside-out from playing together internationally. One thing that creates it as well is that time together training.

“So when you come together again to have the benefit of a good November Series, a good Six Nations, a good summer tour to New Zealand. All that cohesion builds and builds and builds and obviously the end goal is to have a good 2023 World Cup on the back of that cohesion.

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“I think Ireland are in a good place and whether it’s club cohesion like Caelan (Doris), Josh (Van der Flier) and Jack (Conan) playing together, a lineout caller and a lineout thrower, it’s all important for sure.”

Lancaster also outlined that he would expect Jordan Larmour, Josh van der Flier, James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong all to be fit in time for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales on 5 February, following their recent injuries.

“I think very (confident), I say very but I’m not there (with the Ireland squad). But from what I’ve heard, Jordan’s fine, Josh, I saw him yesterday and he seemed OK, James is making great progress and Tadhg the same.

“So I think they fly to Portugal tomorrow (Tuesday) and with a good week’s training out there I’d be surprised if they’re not in contention.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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