Andy Farrell believes Ireland’s rookie half-backs Billy Burns and Jamison Gibson-Park can take inspiration from the rapid development of France’s rising international stars.
Outhalf Burns and scrumhalf Gibson-Park have only 10 Test caps between them but have been thrust into one of the biggest games of the Farrell era due to injuries suffered by influential duo Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.
The Irish must beat France in Dublin on Sunday to prevent their hopes of Six Nations glory being swiftly extinguished just two games in.
France head coach Fabien Galthie has not been afraid to put faith in inexperienced players as he builds towards a home World Cup in 2023, with six of the team selected to start at the Aviva Stadium having two caps or fewer when he began the job last year.
Although a severely depleted team and lack of seasoned deputies is far from ideal, Ireland head coach Farrell hopes the predicament will prove beneficial in the future.
“I suppose to get to be those experienced players they have to deal with situations like this,” Farrell said of his stand-in half-backs.
“That’s the challenge of international rugby. If you want a long and fruitful international career, these are the games that you want to be involved in.
“Those young lads that have come into the French side have taken their chance and now they are becoming more experienced as they go.
“We’re playing at home and we love playing at home, and there’s no better opponent really than the team you guys (the media) are tipping as favourites.
“Why would we not get excited about that? They are raring to go, every single one of them that has been selected.”
Skipper Sexton, who won the first of his 96 caps in 2009, failed to overcome a head knock sustained in last weekend’s loss to Wales, while Murray, an international since 2011, picked up a hamstring problem in training.
Ireland have also lost flanker Peter O’Mahony to suspension following his costly red card in Cardiff and vice-captain James Ryan to a head injury, in addition to being without Caelan Doris and Jacob Stockdale.
Farrell handed out 11 debuts in 2020, including to New Zealand-born Leinster player Gibson-Park and Ulster’s Burns during the Autumn Nations Cup.
While he attracted a degree of criticism for a lack of consistency and some underwhelming performances last year, Farrell believes his selection policy has been vindicated.
“You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t but the autumn now seems like it was the right way to go — giving new people opportunities to play in big games,” he said.
“We get criticised for that and that hopefully will stand us in good stead for this weekend.”
Farrell’s enforced reshuffle also includes a first Test outing since the 2019 World Cup for flanker Rhys Ruddock, a place on the bench for uncapped Munster scrum-half Craig Casey and Ulster lock Iain Henderson captaining Ireland for the first time.
Speaking about Henderson’s development since he joined Ireland’s coaching staff under Joe Schmidt in 2016, Farrell said: “He’s changed massively. He’s always been a bright guy that always analyses things deeply.
“He’s got a real sense of care for his team-mates and can really bring a calmness to the squad.
“He’s worked really hard on his leadership over the time he’s been captain at Ulster and, since he’s been brought into the leadership group here over the last year, he’s really come on in that sense.”
Meanwhile, Ulster scrumhalf John Cooney and uncapped Leinster outhalf Harry Byrne have joined the Irish camp to provide additional cover for Murray and Sexton.