Influx of new blood means we should expect the unexpected

So here we are again, on the cusp of another championship, the first of the decade.

Influx of new blood means we should expect the unexpected

So here we are again, on the cusp of another championship, the first of the decade.

As we prepare for Saturday’s lift-off on the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, there is an altogether different feel to proceedings ahead of Ireland’s home opener against Scotland, what with Andy Farrell’s squad training in Portugal, the Scots in Spain, and Finn Russell in Paris.

Not your typical big-match week.

Throw in the new coaching blood across all six nations, with Farrell one of four new head coaches, and it looks all set for a tournament more unpredictable than ever.

Post-World Cup Six Nations are invariably more difficult to predict with selections stymied by the lingering after-effects of a long and intense campaign just three months ago.

There were retirements amid the reviews, a slew of injuries and a lot of miles on the clock after six rounds of European club rugby were condensed into that shorter window.

Factor in four new outlooks at the top, inevitably some revisions in thinking for those who remain, and further contributions from eager, fresh-faced assistants, and we stand on the brink of an opening round that is intriguing and exciting in equal measures.

Ireland’s new boss, promoted after three years as defence coach to succeed the departed Joe Schmidt, certainly thinks so.

“Honestly, I’ve been involved in the Six Nations for a while now and I absolutely love the competition because of that unpredictability,” Farrell said.

“People always have an idea of who’s going to win the Six Nations. It doesn’t always happen that way, does it?

“And that’s why I love the competition, the rivalry but at the same time the respect the countries have for each other, the highs and the lows, the expectations at the start and then someone loses and the goalposts change a little bit.

“There’s always different ramifications throughout the competition and nobody knows what’s going to happen until the last day and even then we’re probably guessing what the final outcome will be.

“We hope we’re there on the last day making sure we’re in with a chance of winning.”

Farrell has disregarded the notion of enjoying a honeymoon period having taken the reins from Schmidt, who delivered three championships in six Six Nations, including the 2018 Grand Slam.

There are challenges ahead, not least with the need to bed in a revamped coaching staff.

Former England colleague Mike Catt joins as attack coach after a similar role with Italy, John Fogarty has moved from Leinster scrum coach to succeed Greg Feek and forwards coach Simon Easterby has taken on the additional responsibility for Ireland’s defence.

There are also pressing selection concerns with the current good form of John Cooney threatening Conor Murray’s near decade-long hold at scrum-half and Leinster’s uncapped back-row duo Max Deegan and Caelan Doris piling pressure on Munster’s Test stalwarts Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander.

Farrell, who will revert to Tuesday team announcements starting from today, will definitely need a new hooker following the retirement of Schmidt’s captain Rory Best and his decision to omit the experience of perennial deputies Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell, while the full-back jersey is also in need of a fresh occupant following Rob Kearney’s omission.

Yet Farrell’s mission to hit the ground running is undoubtedly helped by the prevailing conditions on the eve of the 2020 championship.

Back-to-back home games against Scotland and defending champions Wales, under Warren Gatland’s successor Wayne Pivac, give the opportunity to gather momentum heading into a third-round trip to Twickenham and World Cup runners-up England on February 23 and those opening games fall in the right order as far Ireland should be concerned.

No-one should underestimate the threat posed by the Welsh, who backed up last season’s Grand Slam with a run to the World Cup semi-finals, yet the Scots are in a totally different situation.

With fly-half Russell’s abrupt departure from Gregor Townsend’s training camp last week, an inventive and dangerous backline is missing a world-class playmaker to pull the strings.

Russell, as Munster players will attest after two excellent pool performances, is currently at the top of his game after steering Racing 92 to the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

With scrum-half Greig Laidlaw retired from Test rugby, there is a lot experience missing from the Scotland brains trust and head coach Townsend could have done with Russell’s “breach of team protocol” and exit from the squad like a hole in the head, as he attempts to rebuild cohesion following a terrible World Cup pool campaign which opened with a heavy loss to Ireland and closed with a chastening defeat to hosts Japan.

Not that Farrell will dilute his message to the Ireland players ahead of this Saturday’s opener.

He will have no truck with talk of a transition period.

They will have to deliver.

Four of Ireland’s Six Nations squad were yesterday among the 15 nominees for the EPCR European Player of the Year 2020 award.

Leinster trio Tadhg Furlong, Jordan Larmour, and Garry Ringrose, and Ulster’s John Cooney, along with provincial team-mate Marcell Coetzee, were on the list agreed by a panel of judges including Brian O’Driscoll, Alan Quinlan, Dimitri Yachvili, and Brian Habana.

That list will be reduced to five players after the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals by a combination of the public vote and the verdict of the judges, after which voting will reopen, with the winner of the Anthony Foley Memorial Trophy announced after the final on May 23.

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