Organised chaos is a phrase that is rarely far from the mind when looking at the continuing impact of Covid-19 on northern hemisphere club rugby.
The United Rugby Championship (URC) has been hit by a raft of postponements that will necessitate some of the fixture schedule taking place during the Six Nations, while travelling to and from South Africa is another conundrum that will take some untangling.
The Champions Cup has been ravaged by the pandemic too for a second season in a row. There was no way to resolve the issues that arose over the first two weekends of pool matches to everyone’s satisfaction with several clubs frustrated or disappointed by the rulings that ensued.
EPCR is hoping that the final round of pool matches go ahead without any further disruption and that salvation in terms of the competitive integrity of the tournament can be found from the home and away Round of 16 matches onwards, starting next April. Full stadiums, unencumbered travel, it would be bliss.
The Omicron virus has directly impacted on pretty much all squads but there are several clubs that have made a choice about where their priorities lie. That’s a prerogative but it’s a pity when the Champions Cup is viewed as collateral damage.
The national team represents the IRFU's primary cash cow and therefore results are an important consideration to drive the revenue model
There is a practical and obvious context to what happens in the Champions Cup next weekend from the perspective of the Irish provinces but it also has a knock-on effect for Andy Farrell’s Ireland. Momentum from performances in the Autumn Nations series bodes well and will have generated belief and optimism ahead of the Six Nations, a vindication of style endorsed by substance, the results.
Under Farrell’s guidance, Ireland’s performances have evolved after a modest beginning to a more fluent, heads-up playing orientation capable of troubling the best as they demonstrated so ably in the victory over New Zealand.
The national team represents the IRFU’s primary cash cow and therefore results are an important consideration to drive the revenue model. The Six Nations is the marquee tournament in that respect so there is always pressure on the Irish head coach to be as successful as possible in that seven-week, five -match schedule. It is a large shop window commercially.
A top two finish in the Six Nations would represent continued progress from the autumn. The tricky bit for Farrell is to manage that while continuing to expand the playing base, finding ever more players capable of thriving in the Test arena and, as a result, increasing the competition for places in the squad.
I can attest from experience to the link between success in November and the following year’s Six Nations. In the 2006/07, 2008/09 and more recently the 2013/2014 seasons, Ireland won two Six Nations championships, including a Grand Slam and narrowly missed out on a third tournament title, across three different and disparate coaching regimes.
What was common to all three was the group of players that were successful in November remained largely intact for the Six Nations. Eddie O’Sullivan opted for the win-first approach until the tail end of his career as Irish coach. This worked extremely well for the most part albeit that if failed to deliver that particular outright championship victory.
His successor Declan Kidney’s main strength is in extracting the best from a playing group. That applied equally from his time at Munster to enabling a talented Irish squad to fulfil their potential in that Grand Slam campaign.
He cultivated a larger panel to drive competition, introducing a light sprinkling of newer faces to the more established personnel in a relatively safe environment; always with a keen eye as to what would serve the group best. The back row offered a classic example, a young Jamie Heaslip disputing the number eight position with Denis Leamy.
Joe Schmidt removed any ambiguity when it came to selection. A player knew exactly where he stood, when he would play and what was expected. That season was the beginning of the end for me, not starting against Australia in November (2013) and then the opening Six Nations (2014) match against Scotland; Luke Marshall was getting game time.
It drew the desired response from me initially but 18 months later my international career was over. Kidney and Schmidt both firmly believed in keeping an experienced spine to a team and then introducing in-form players in a graduated manner. It served to smooth out that transition process from aspirant to international; cosseting a young player with experienced internationals.
Farrell has maintained that tradition, positive in promoting promising young players; 11 debutants in his first year (2020) and a further nine in the summer window last year illustrate the point. Ideally he’d like to polish one or two gems during the Six Nations while extending that unbeaten nine-game sequence.
The most pressing matter at hand is that of Johnny Sexton’s deputy/successor, an inkling into which will come today with the announcement of an enlarged Ireland squad for the upcoming Six Nations.
Joey Carbery’s injury has once again muddied the waters. I was interested to watch how Jack Crowley fared in Castres and much of what I saw, I liked. He made mistakes, a couple down to concentration, but he didn’t let it affect him. He didn’t hide, had the courage to play on the gain-line and take the licks.
Others have been auditioned for the role of Sexton's understudy without being convincing enough, found wanting in one or more aspects
He owed his opportunity to injury and up until recently wasn’t an option that Munster head Johann van Graan was willing to pursue in the 10 jersey but the way in which Crowley plays the game very much fits the attacking shape that Farrell and backs’ coach Mike Catt are honing with Ireland.
Crowley is comfortable in broken play; a very good example is a try he almost created last weekend. With Tadhg Beirne as his front runner and Rory Scannell lying deep and well marked, Crowley ghosted between two would-be Castres’ tacklers.
The offload didn’t stick but the preamble was very good. He carries the ball in two hands, which automatically taxes defenders, often slows line speed and creates a little uncertainty, which is exactly what you want to do when you are running at the opposition. Footwork, strength, acceleration and what appears to be a good temperament from a place-kicking perspective are other qualities.
It would be nice to see him back up against Wasps at Thomond Park on Sunday. Crowley turned 22 last week, the same age as Romain Ntamack and Marcus Smith, both of whom are light years ahead in terms of experience and in boasting a proven big-match pedigree. Time will tell where Crowley measures up talent-wise. Coaches took a punt on Ntamack and Smith when they were younger. Crowley needs a coach willing to do the same.
Others have been auditioned for the role of Sexton’s understudy without being convincing enough, found wanting in one or more aspects of the way the Irish coaches want to play the game. There’s no point in trying to jam a square peg into a round hole if he cannot execute the required game plan.
Harry Byrne and Crowley are similar in style and while the Leinster outhalf has already been capped he has large question marks against his durability at this level.
Tadhg Furlong's calf injury comes as a blessing and a curse, forcing Farrell to look at the alternatives while hoping it doesn't disrupt the set piece
The young Ulster outside backs will certainly feel they are pushing hard for selection in a match-day 23. Robert Baloucoune’s impressive performance for Ulster at Franklin’s Gardens offered a timely reminder that he brings one or two unique qualities when it comes to the wings at Farrell’s disposal, individually superb and combining well with his fullback Michael Lowry.
It is most likely too soon for Lowry; however Baloucoune needs to be in any conversation involving Andrew Conway, James Lowe and Keith Earls for a starting shirt against Wales.
James Hume may realistically suffer for not getting a cap during the November window in the short term. However any perceived disappointment has been far from obvious, subsumed into a series of excellent displays.
This Saturday he will potentially face another moment in the benchmarking process if he directly opposes Clermont Auvergne’s Damian Penaud in the centre. As the Frenchman once again demonstrated last weekend, he is ridiculously difficult to defend – a rather attractive feather for Hume to target for his cap.
Tadhg Furlong’s calf injury comes as a blessing and a curse, forcing Farrell to look at the alternatives while hoping it doesn’t disrupt the set piece. Marty Moore’s solid set piece work is an attractive option or perhaps he may look to blood Tom O’Toole alongside Porter and Kelleher. This is one of those finely balanced decisions; faith in your set piece is a rock you can build a championship on.
The natural competition for places in the back row, the confidence that comes with Jamison Gibson-Park and Sexton running the show at halfback and the conveyor belt of outside backs coming from the North should feed nicely into momentum from November.
Matches in the Six Nations arrive thick and fast, first Wales, then France and Italy before February is out. There are still a few gaps in the playing roster, and this weekend’s round of Champions Cup matches gives the runners and riders a final audition before Andy Farrell decides to reward or acknowledge form ahead of his opening match-day squad for the Welsh game.