The field research continues for Andy Farrell as another set of players is thrown into the Test arena to see whether they are capable of taking Ireland to the next level.
For the second week in a row, the head coach will put a new group of players under his microscope in search of answers. Last week’s collective was not up to the demands that Twickenham required and Farrell has chopped and changed once more, with the leeway of facing less daunting circumstances, Georgia in Dublin on Sunday.
After last Saturday’s 18-7 defeat to an England side a cut above, what is now at stake in this final Autumn Nations Cup pool game is looking like a third and fourth-place play-off.
Against a Tier 2 nation still searching for its first points on the scoreboard having been nilled by both England and Wales in consecutive weekends, victory would appear to be for Ireland’s taking so in making nine changes from the team beaten in London more handsomely than the scoreline suggests, Farrell must be hoping there is more to be gained than a routine victory.
He has also made three positional switches to facilitate his latest experiment, moving Keith Earls from right wing to left and Hugo Keenan from full-back to the other wing after two promising starts in the 11 jersey against Italy and France, in order to facilitate another look at Jacob Stockdale in the full-back berth; and switching CJ Stander from blindside back to No.8 to enable an examination of Tadhg Beirne’s credentials as a Test flanker.
“It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for some time,” Farrell said of Beirne’s second Ireland start at blindside having previously faced Samoa at the World Cup last October.
“We think Tadhg is a six/second row. Obviously, with the pool in the second row, when you get a few injuries, then obviously he’s an excellent footballer, he’s an excellent player, no matter what.
“Sometimes needs must is getting good players out there. We think he’s an excellent six. He’s mobile, his work-rate is outstanding, he hits good lines, he’s got good hands, and he’s obviously a good poaching threat. All of that adds up to a good six.
“We’re excited to see how he goes in that position.”
Additional changes include Billy Burns earning his first start as Ireland 10 after two brief but bright cameos off the bench and the return of Conor Murray at scrum-half to lend experience to the new half-back partnership which finished the game at Twickenham.
There is a well-deserved rest for Test centurion and loosehead prop Cian Healy, who moves to the bench to allow Finlay Bealham to make a pitch as a prop capable of performing on both corners of the front row while Rob Herring and Iain Henderson are brought back into the tight five as a ready made and cohesive lineout partnership of hooker and lock respectively in a bid to atone for the collective malfunctions of last weekend.
The remaining changes see Will Connors swap places with Peter O’Mahony, moving from bench to openside flanker and a fifth Test cap, and Stuart McCloskey replacing Bundee Aki in a midfield partnership alongside Chris Farrell.
So what constitutes a positive outcome?
“Well, finding out about people, different combinations,” the head coach said yesterday. “There’s some good combinations there with (Ulster’s) Billy, Stu and Jacob at full-back. They know each other pretty well.
“Looking at Conor, with his experience, regarding Billy playing his first game. That’s always going to be interesting for us.
“We’re excited about this team going out and giving a performance.
“When we’re given the amount of possession that we had (against England), making sure we play with our heads up and see the opportunities. Deliver on executing those opportunities.”
The selection of uncapped Munster full-back Shane Daly as outside-back cover on the replacements’ bench, would raise the total of players used in Farrell’s first year as Ireland boss to 41 and take the Test debutant tally to 10 for the same period, if the Corkman is given a run and the Englishman made a reasoned case for the influx of fresh blood.
“This is an opportunity for us to grow the playing pool.
“Unless we find out and give people the opportunity, how do they gain the experience?
“Having said that, you don’t come with a plan saying ‘we’re going to cap 10 players’, opportunity arises for players regarding injury, etc.
“We’re glad to grow the pool and find out about people.
“Then, when it comes to the Six Nations after Christmas then hopefully that pool is grown and you’ve got a few more headaches along the way.”