Improvement remains theme as Ireland prepare for jump up in class

Andy Farrell has backed the players who scraped past Scotland to take the extra steps required to overcome the greater challenge a rampant Wales will bring to Dublin on Saturday.

Improvement remains theme as Ireland prepare for jump up in class

Andy Farrell has backed the players who scraped past Scotland to take the extra steps required to overcome the greater challenge a rampant Wales will bring to Dublin on Saturday.

The new head coach’s reign got off to a steady if unspectacular start at the Aviva Stadium last weekend in the unforgiving confines of a Guinness Six Nations opener but Farrell is well aware that the problems posed by a much-improved, far feistier Scotland than previously witnessed are at a lower level than the questions that will be asked of Ireland by the reigning Grand Slam champions.

Rather than change things up in advance of that test, Farrell has tasked all but two of those sent out against the Scots to sit the Welsh examination.

With debutant No 8 Caelan Doris stood down following a failed Head Injury Assessment after just eight minutes last Saturday, and centre Garry Ringrose unavailable until the fourth-round game against Italy having injured a finger that required surgery, the head coach has chosen the men who finished in their stead, Peter O’Mahony and Robbie Henshaw, to take on last October’s World Cup semi-finalists and help make the improvements in attack, defence and at the set-piece that tempered the reviews of their 19-12 win.

Otherwise, it is as you were. Conor Murray, whose performance at scrum-half last weekend was efficient and constructive if not the blockbuster return that would have silenced his many doubters, was at least enough to persuade the one person whose opinion really matters that he should remain in the number nine jersey to take on Wales, leaving the much-vaunted John Cooney to cool his jets once more from the bench and no doubt generate a similar roar that greeted his entrance on 60 minutes against Scotland at a similar stage this weekend rather than from the off.

His was a good 20 minutes but the die appeared to have been cast as early as last Saturday night when Farrell gave Murray his seal of approval and suggested the Munster man was coming back to his best form on his 79th Ireland appearance.

“He played with higher tempo at times, he was right in the thick of it when we were going pretty well in the opposition ‘22 in the first half,” the head coach had said of Murray.

“In the second half, he was looking for holes and getting out there a little bit more than what we’ve seen him in the past.

Some of his kicking was exceptional, one or two went astray but, like everyone, there’s some things to work on, he’ll be happy enough, Conor, he worked tirelessly for a good stint there.

Improvement has been the theme since the squad reconvened to prepare for Wales, starting with an open and honest review of Saturday’s performance on Monday. Necessarily so, because Wales, 42-0 victors over Italy in Cardiff, will be a far more dangerous opponent than a Scottish team whose visits to the Irish 22 were in double figures but came away with just six points for their efforts.

“We’ve been over that this morning,” Farrell said yesterday. “There was a mixed bag of the reasons why they got into our 22, whether it be from execution or a poor decision or a penalty — going off our feet, I remember that — or a couple of poor kicks allowed them in there even at the start of the game.

“They flowed into our 22 and camped down there for quite some time. I’ve always said, obviously I’ve been a defence coach for a long time, that Scotland are unbelievably hard to defend against. They’ve a box of tricks and they’re really threatening and we saw that at times.

We had to stand for something at the weekend and the true grit that I mentioned after the game, when our backs were to the wall a little bit, we managed to dig deep and make those two-men hits and slow the ball down.

“Having said that, again, we’ve been honest with our review and said ‘it was good, it needs to be better’. Obviously the Hogg situation where he dropped the ball in the corner, there’s a few things we needed to fix up there that were wrong and we can try to be better at the weekend because we probably need to be.”

Farrell’s bench selection does make for more interesting reading, with Keith Earls returning to the matchday squad as outside back cover following a knee injury, Ulster’s in-form utility back Will Addison having been ruled out with a calf injury.

While Doris, 21, was stood down owing in a part to a previous concussion this season playing for Leinster, replacement loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne did retain his spot on the bench despite also failing a Head Injury Assessment early in the second half last Saturday.

The Munster prop will still have to complete his return to play protocols and Jack McGrath is on standby. O’Mahony’s return to the back row at blindside flanker means a promotion for uncapped Leinster forward Max Deegan.

“He’s got all the attributes of a great back rower. You go into the unknown a little bit with international rugby but we feel he is ready. His ball-playing ability, his spatial awareness coming on to the ball and using his footwork. He’s got nice soft hands at the same time.

"He’s got good leg drive in his carry. He’s a great all-round footballer and we think he will add a dimension to us, especially in attack off the bench.”

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