Andy Farrell believes he will be leading Ireland into a new era with a squad for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations he believes has got the lot.
Stepping out from the shadow of the most successful head coach in Irish rugby history was always going to be a challenge, even when the moment came in the wake of his predecessor’s biggest disappointment at the World Cup three months ago.
Yet Farrell, Joe Schmidt’s successor after three years as his defence coach, will go into his first championship as the main man with a group of players that has already responded to his rallying cry and is in an excellent position to hit the ground running against Scotland at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium in 16 days.
Farrell had thrown down the gauntlet to the 45 players he had gathered around him before Christmas at the IRFU’s new High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in west Dublin and told them they were in charge of their destiny, that the onus was on their shoulders to get themselves selected for this start of a new coaching regime.
In whittling down that number to the 35 he will choose his first matchday squad of 23 from, the former England and Lions assistant has emerged with a playing group that not only excites him but possesses what he hopes has all the ingredients to produce a winning start his tenure.
“We’ve taken a long, hard look at selection and it’s been difficult because there’s a lot of guys that are playing really well and we’ve seen what the provinces are at but when we come down to the 35 you can’t help but be excited,” Farrell said yesterday on Irishrugby.ie after he revealed his hand.
“You look at the group, it’s a tremendous group. It’s full of everything really. It’s dynamic, it’s powerful, it’s aggressive, it’s got a lot of skill, it’s got a lot of speed in there as well and we want to see all of those.”
Many who were looking for some statement selections from Farrell could be disappointed by his decision to appoint the oldest player in his group as his first captain.
Jonathan Sexton becomes Ireland’s 106th player to take on that leadership role at the age of 34 having led his country for the first time at the World Cup against Russia last October 3.
It is an appointment that hardly constitutes a long-term strategy with an eye on the next World Cup in 2023, though it would be rash to assume Sexton was incapable of staying the course of another four-year cycle given his competitive tenacity, but it is also a sign that Ireland’s playmaker for the last decade is also close to a return from the knee injury he suffered in December at Northampton.
“I am feeling really good, I’ve obviously had a few weeks out with the knee but I am close to getting back to full training this week and hopefully I’ll be fully ready to go next week and into the Six Nations,” Sexton said having spoken of the captaincy being “the biggest honour of his career”.
Sexton will lead a squad with plenty of new blood, both on Farrell’s coaching ticket and in the dressing room.
A new attack coach in Mike Catt, the promotion of John Fogarty from Leinster to Ireland scrum coach and a change-up for forwards coach Simon Easterby who assumes charge of the defence gives the Ireland backroom a fresh look while on the playing side there are five uncapped players while seven of Schmidt’s squad who soldiered with Sexton in Japan are noticeably absent.
Rory Best, Sexton’s predecessor as skipper, is the only player to walk away of his own volition, the 37-year-old having retired following Ireland’s chastening quarter-final exit at the hands of the All Blacks.
Munster duo Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery would surely have been included had they not suffered long-term injury but those licking their wounds this morning after being omitted are full-back Rob Kearney, and forwards Rhys Ruddock, John Ryan and Niall Scannell.
#ShoulderToShoulder— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 15, 2020
Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell has named a 35-man squad for the 2020 #GuinnessSixNations, including five uncapped players☘️
Full story: https://t.co/tTDsq5eJeb#TeamOfUs pic.twitter.com/8Xxg5anFsf
For Kearney and Ryan, the failure to hold down their provincial starting spots contributed to their non-selection while Munster’s Scannell has lost out to Connacht’s Dave Heffernan, who joins Rob Herring and the uncapped Ronan Kelleher in a trio of hookers.
Perhaps most aggrieved should be Ruddock, a dynamic and versatile back-rower playing at the heart of swashbuckling Leinster loose-forward trio which has swept all before it in Europe and the PRO14 this season. What makes it more puzzling is the advancement of his uncapped comrades Max Deegan and Caelan Doris.
They, along with Kelleher and Ulster duo Billy Burns and Tom O’Toole deserve their spots as do Jack McGrath, enjoying his renaissance away from Leinster following a summer move north, and Munster back-row Jack O’Donoghue.
Neither loosehead McGrath nor O’Donoghue was included in Farrell’s mini-training camp before Christmas yet responded to the new boss’s plea to force their way into the reckoning.
Of the 10 players in that 45-man gathering who failed to make the cut, there is a lot of good form being left in the provinces with Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey chief among them.
It is Munster where the axe has fallen most frequently, with Mike Haley, Jean Kleyn and Rory Scannell victims of their province’s drop in form in recent weeks alongside the latter’s brother Niall, although Andy Farrell encouraged all those on the outside to keep knocking on his door.
“Selection is always ongoing and we want it to be like that for as long as we possibly can,” the head coach said.
“Competition for places at this level is absolutely key and for some of the guys who are obviously upset, not quite happy with not getting into the squad initially, the message has been loud and clear for them — that we’ll be watching them play over the coming weeks to see what their form’s like. That message will be loud and clear as well to the guys that are picked. This isn’t a World Cup where you pick 31 and that’s what you’re stuck with.
“We’ll be watching not just form in training and on the field as far as the Six Nations is concerned, but also in the provincial games as well.”