Saturday’s Six Nation’s opener between Ireland and Scotland brings together two coaches at different stages of their journey. Both will be feeling the pressure, but for different reasons, writes
In the green corner
In contrast to Gregor Townsend, Andy Farrell has bided his time and learned his trade before ascending to the summit of international coaching. No different to his Scottish counterpart, Farrell faced his own challenges this week.
With little or no preparation time to make significant alterations in playing style, the most significant pointer to a changing of the guard from Joe Schmidt’s tenure was offered yesterday when Farrell announced his first-ever matchday squad.
The fact that he chose to do so two days earlier in the week than his predecessor was welcomed by a variety of interested parties, not least the players and, curiously, the media. Significant tension had accompanied the practice of announcing the team to the squad on a Monday for general release on the Thursday. This imposed pressure on the media to get the team in advance, forcing Schmidt to waste valuable time and energy trying to work out who revealed his deliberations when they invariably leaked into the public domain in advance of the official announcement.
Schmidt hated that and everyone within the camp was walking on eggshells when it happened. In one fell swoop, Farrell has removed that tension. Control the controllables, they say.
With two home games to launch the campaign, Farrell is immediately under pressure to get off to a winning start. What combination would he rely on to deliver that? After much speculation, his deliberations offer a glimpse into the future along with a strong reliance on retaining his experienced leaders on the bridge.
That Conor Murray gets the nod at scrum-half, despite the clamour for the in-form John Cooney to start, was predictable. Murray hasn’t been at his best over the last 12 months but, having worked with the Munster man on the last two Lions tours and as Ireland’s defence coach over the last four years, Farrell is convinced Murray is still the man for the job. Coaches live or die by such decisions.
The fully merited call to start Caelan Doris at No 8 may well have been a contributory factor in Murray’s favour with his experience and composure at the base of the scrum a big asset to Doris. In addition, Cooney will be afforded the chance to influence the final quarter off the bench.
The selection of Doris excites me. It’s been clear watching him at Ireland U20 level over the last two years that he is to the manor born and his selection adds more balance to the Irish loose trio.
The inclusion of Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway in the back three is not only deserved, it also reunites the trio that performed so well in Ireland’s best performance at the World Cup, the opening pool game against Scotland.
In all five changes to the side that started the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand represents significant change given the limited preparation time available for Saturday’s Six Nations opener.
In addition the bench, with another potential test debutant in promising Leinster hooker Ronan Kelleher, is significance in terms of explosive power and test experience, which should make a big difference as the second half progresses.
Saturday’s game marks the start of Farrell’s journey as a head coach. This interesting selection suggests he is opting for evolution over revolution. Unlike Townsend, time is on his side.
In the blue corner
When Gregor Townsend woke up on the Monday after his Scottish squad assembled for their challenging Six Nations opener against Ireland in Dublin ten days ago, he was already facing his biggest call of the campaign.
Having granted his squad permission to enjoy a few drinks on their first get together since their failed World Cup campaign, his star player Finn Russell overstepped the mark. Bad enough to retain your seat at the bar when your fellow players have already headed for bed and the backroom staff have advised a similar exit, worse when you fail to turn up in time for training the following morning.
The mercurial out-half left his coach with no choice. Given an inch, he took a mile. It appeared as if the two iconic Scottish stand-offs haven’t exactly been on the same page since Scotland’s last Six Nations outing against England when, having trailed 31-7 at the break, Scotland recovered to draw 38-38 in a remarkable game that identified serious flaws on both sides.
Interviewed after the game, Russell revealed an ‘argument’ with Townsend helped spark Scotland’s stunning comeback. “I actually had an argument with Gregor at half-time. I said to him ‘you’re telling us to kick and when we kick, they just run it back and cut us open, and when we run it, they’re just hitting us behind the gain line and winning the ball back.”
As Munster supporters can confirm, Russell has been in scintillating form for Racing 92 this season. He has always been a bit of a maverick. Prone to pushing things a bit too much, he didn’t have sufficient players of quality around him, either with Glasgow Warriors or Scotland, to extract the maximum returns from his undoubted playmaking talents.
He has now found a Utopian base in Paris and regularly provides the key to unpick the best of Top 14 defences. Having so many kindred spirits outside him in Virima Vakatawa — who has the capacity to light up France’s Six Nations challenge — Teddy Thomas, Juan Imholf and Simon Zebo has only served to fire his creative juices even further.
You get the sense he has become a frustrated figure in the Scottish set-up. Yet you just can’t afford to throw your toys out of the pram. With such a truncated window of preparation at international level, it is vital that everyone pulls together and recognises they are playing for something bigger than themselves.
Just think how the already beleaguered Scottish rugby supporter felt last Thursday when news filtered through that Russell would not only miss the Ireland game but possibly the entire Six Nations campaign.
Given Russell’s club form, had the British and Irish Lions been touring this year as opposed to next, he would certainly warrant a place in the squad. He has the skill set to light up a Lions backline. Right now, however, Warren Gatland will be questioning whether it would be worth the risk bringing a potentially divisive figure on tour. At the very least, he’d be calling him in for a chat.
As for Townsend, one of only two head coaches in this year’s tournament (Eddie Jones the other), with experience in the demands of the role, the Russell dilemma has heaped even more pressure on a coach already feeling the heat with the failure to emerge from their World Cup pool in Japan.
Townsend, who did a brilliant job when leading Glasgow Warriors to the Guinness PRO12 title in 2015, was in too much of a hurry to take over the reins with Scotland. At a time when Vern Cotter was doing a really good job, Townsend put it up to the SRU to appoint him.
If he didn’t get the top job, chances are he would have fled the nest to the Premiership in England.
What the SRU should have done was appoint him as an assistant coach under Cotter for the two years leading into the 2019 World Cup with a view to taking over from the New Zealander after the tournament in Japan.
Both men, along I suspect with the Scottish team, would have been better served. As the pressure ratchets up another level on the eve of this Six Nations, I wonder if Townsend had his time again, would he agree with that assertion.