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Gordon D’Arcy: Andy Farrell’s conservative Ireland squad is a big chance missed

Planning for Japan and the All Blacks rather than France 2023 is a short-sighted choice

It's hard to shake the feeling that composition of the Ireland squad for the November Test series represents an opportunity missed. There are trace elements of positivity in the shape of a few young players who have been included like the uncapped duo Ciaran Frawley and Dan Sheehan but in delving beneath the headlines it is a relatively conservative selection.

There are also contradictory aspects in the selection with several players short on match minutes and in some cases form included while the genuine claims of others who impressed in the first five-game block of matches in the United Rugby Championship (URC) have been ignored. It represents mixed messages for players and that’s never a positive spin.

The games against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina should represent a 'free go' for Ireland head coach Andy Farrell to further experiment, mix and match styles and personnel with one eye on the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. The Six Nations Championship pays the bills for professional rugby in Ireland so there isn't much scope to chop and change in a results driven tournament.

Ireland will have to be fully loaded personnel wise for the three Test series in New Zealand next summer or suffer accordingly. As things stand Ireland have 19 internationals - it doesn’t include warm-up games in the summer - prior to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, 13 of which comprise two Six Nations Championships (2022, 2023) and the summer tour to New Zealand (2022).


The two November Test series, this year and next, offer leeway to shuffle the playing deck. Look at other countries like for example France, New Zealand, England and Australia, that’s exactly what they are doing during this window. It’s important not to stand still.

I do have sympathy for Farrell because at the top end there aren’t as many players pushing through as might be expected to shake up the incumbents, a state of affairs that represents a flashing red light for the provinces as well as the national team. Talent ID and development is not quite producing the calibre of gems as it did several years ago.

The presence of development players Jamie Osborne and Thomas Ahern is a continuation of something that previous coaches adopted. It's not new. I think back to my own time as a teenager and receiving a call-up to Warren Gatland's Ireland training squad ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Romania in November 1998 and a game against South Africa.

It started in rather embarrassing fashion. I took a phone call from team manager Donal Lenihan, unaware that the door of my apartment had locked behind me with the keys inside. Due at the team hotel in a couple of hours, my dad collected me, and I had to go and borrow some gear from a friend, Nicky O’Connor.

Conor O’Shea took one look at the bedraggled figure that arrived in the Glenview hotel and christened me ‘Swampy,’ in honour of those that were protesting against the felling of trees for the road expansion at the Glen of the Downs.

It's a populist selection that is largely skewed in favour of pedigree over form

Gatland liked to back young players and that’s why myself, Brian O’Driscoll and Ciaran Scally were included. We spent our time smiling about how cool it was to be there and playing ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to see who would run down to the team room for snacks.

Ciaran made his debut against Georgia that November but his career was prematurely cut off at the knee by injury. Brian’s introduction to Test rugby came the following summer in Australia while I spent four seasons as a bag holder for the Irish team. Eddie O’Sullivan never fancied me as a player till I changed position, developed a lot as an athlete and forced his hand. Prior to the 2004 Six Nations I had five caps to my name.

Youth and potential

If Gatland championed youth and potential, O’Sullivan’s priority was winning games and personnel reflected that approach. Andy Farrell’s squad feels a bit like that, familiar at first glance and then a little underwhelming.

The fanfare regarding the return of the prodigal son, Simon Zebo (31), is understandable to a point but this isn't a must win Six Nations game. Where does he fit into the World Cup jigsaw? It's a populist selection that is largely skewed in favour of pedigree over form. He's not alone in that respect.

Robert Baloucoune, despite a lack of minutes for Ulster because of injury, should start

For me Jacob Stockdale is still one of Ireland's best players and will return after injury as first choice on the left wing. Hugo Keenan has been exceptional since his debut and has nailed down the 15 jersey. It's so disappointing that Will Addison has succumbed to another injury misfortune because he has the talent to make the starting team.

If no newcomer, relative or otherwise, breaks the selection ceiling this November then it represents a golden opportunity lost. The makeup of the Irish squad has a whiff of results superseding all other concerns. That is a very narrow, short term focus. In previous seasons Ireland would always have one fixture in which they could make a dozen changes but that probably won’t be the case next month.

Japan are now considered very much in Ireland’s peer group and selection is likely to reflect that statement but there has to be a balance principally in ascertaining whether some of the less experienced players have the capacity to step up and thrive.

Robert Baloucoune, despite a lack of minutes for Ulster because of injury, should start. He’s an exciting, effervescent player with top end speed and this is the perfect setting to evaluate his progress.

If he plays well then he should stay in for the game against the All Blacks. Farrell is already well aware of what Keith Earls, Jordan Larmour, James Lowe and Andrew Conway offer: so too the absent Stockdale. There are wrinkles from a defence perspective in aspects of each of their games. Giving Baloucoune a run would be progressive.

Harry Byrne has played 22 minutes for Leinster this season. His potential is well documented but can he manage a game, can he think his way through it, problem solve and still possess the strength of character to find solutions when the team gets bogged down? There’s an argument to say that should happen first at Leinster over several games.

Joey Carbery also has several points to prove. If neither Byrne nor Carbery get any sort of meaningful game time next month then it is time to start saying novenas that Johnny Sexton stays healthy all the way to the World Cup. Pressure for places drives collective excellence within a team environment.

That’s some of what this playing window has to be about, looking to push and nurture those competition levels. Where does Tom O’Toole fit in the propping depth chart? He needs a body of work at Test level.

Players like Stuart McCloskey and Finlay Bealham have already been weighed and measured so would it be more beneficial to see whether Tom Daly, currently the form inside centre in Irish rugby, Stewart Moore or Jack Aungier included, tasked with presenting their credentials on the training paddock?

Adding four or five extra players to the squad rather than getting anyone to drop out wouldn’t break the bank financially but it would allow some of the younger or less experienced players to learn the systems in a more relaxed manner. I can vouch for the fact that the more regular the exposure to the national squad and systems, the easier it is to fit in, on and off the pitch.

Depth chart

Frawley's presence is a positive but he needs to get some game time rather than simply holding a bag in training. Fitness permitting the centre combination for the game against New Zealand will perm two from Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose but a mix and match between Frawley, Moore and James Hume for Japan or Argentina would be a progressive look at the depth chart.

Selecting three number eights in Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Gavin Coombes suggests that one may play at blindside flanker. Doris is probably favourite for the role. If that's not the case then I believe Jack O'Donoghue should have been not only in the squad but getting valuable game time as he ticks so many boxes as a player.

How can you get experience if you don't get a shot? It's the ultimate paradox

It'd be interesting to learn what if any dialogue there is between Farrell and his four provincial counterparts. Munster's Jack Crowley offered a glimpse of his talent at the weekend; now he just needs another 15 starts to build on it. Ben Healy is in a different place and requires to be entrusted with the 10 jersey for the big games.

The fact that the provincial game - there may be one or two A interpros - effectively shuts down for most of November means that they are going to have to lean heavily on the All Ireland League to give some players game time.

It feels like we are back to early 2000 where if you had no experience you couldn’t get a chance until injury to another player intervened. How can you get experience if you don’t get a shot? It’s the ultimate paradox. Ireland are currently ticking along as if we had time, players and form on our side.

Farrell must decide whether winning the Japan match at any cost is the best prep for playing the All Blacks or would fostering genuine competition for places at the top level better serve Irish rugby in the short and medium term. There is nothing more sobering for a player than watching someone else wear his jersey and leave it in a better place after a game. That drives on both players.

In the natural evolution of successful teams one or two new faces come through every year, strengthening the group. In the next three weeks hopefully Ireland will be able to embrace that notion while chasing success on the pitch.