Andy Farrell wants experimental Ireland squad to play in ‘fearless’ style

Coach believes Blade and Byrne have skills to help team pick up the pace in summer series

Ireland’s head coach Andy Farrell with forwards coach Paul O’Connell. Photograph:  Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland’s head coach Andy Farrell with forwards coach Paul O’Connell. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

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As well as strengthening Ireland’s depth chart, Andy Farrell wants his remodeled, experimental squad to expand their game and speaks of “being a little bit fearless in how we want to play” when hosting Japan and the USA on the first two Saturdays in July.

“I think over the next couple of years the way that World Rugby are trying to address all sorts of things regarding scrum, breakdown etc, it all gears to the game being safer and speeding up. So being able to play what’s in front of you and being able to play quick is going to be absolutely vital and it’s something that we’ve already started and something that we want to see a big improvement in.”

This sounds all the more ambitious given Ireland will be on something of a hiding to nothing against Japan, as was the case in the World Cup and despite the outcome of that pool encounter.

A feature of Ireland’s two previous stints in prolonged bio-secure bubbles is how well the squad gelled and stuck to their task, and as a consequence they reserved their best performances of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup and 2021 Six Nations until the final games against Scotland and England.

Yet the cost of the opening Six Nations loss in Wales, akin to the 2019 defeat at home by England, is still fresh in Farrell’s mind.

“We lost our first game, albeit it with a red card, you can make any excuse you want, we still lost our first game. But coming into that game it’s always going to be the same in the Six Nations and it’s always going to be the same with the autumn Tests.”

As there will be a similar 10- or 12-day preparation for the first of three tests in New Zealand next summer, Farrell highlighted the biggest challenge for the 11 uncapped players will be “to get up to speed, as soon as you possibly can”.

Japan celebrate victory over Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa. File photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Japan celebrate victory over Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa. File photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

By contrast, Japan are already in a five-week build-up which began with a 32-17 warm-up win against the Sunwolves last Saturday and will have played the Lions in Murrayfield a week beforehand.

“Then they come to us so they’re going to be absolutely brimming.

“We’ll have to be at our best and for those lads that are coming in who are new to the environment or stepping up in a senior role et cetera, they’ve got to deliver, because this is the world that we live in from an Irish rugby point of view.”

A three-week gap until the Japan game, with the players on holiday this week, along with adequate cover in the current climate, has contributed to Farrell naming such a large squad and he conceded: “There’s certainly no guarantee that everybody’s going to play.

Among the 11 uncapped players are the Connacht scrumhalf Caolin Blade and Leinster outhalf Harry Byrne.

The 27-year-old Blade has been in squads before and could offer a lively change-up off the bench although his five tries have all come in his 11 starts for Connacht this season.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell on Connacht’s Caolin Blade: ‘His pass is good, he’s quick, his scanning is good when he gets to the breakdown, he plays both sides when he gets to the ruck.’ Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“I like his all-round skillset and, at the top of all that, his pass is good, he’s quick, his scanning is good when he gets to the breakdown, he plays both sides when he gets to the ruck,” enthused Farrell.

“He’s aggressive, he’s got a bit of an attitude that you like as well. His kicking game is good, left foot and right foot, whether it will be a little grass ball on the floor or in the air, he’s done really well and it [scrumhalf] is unbelievably competitive but he warrants his chance.”

The younger Byrne, like the exciting Ulster winger Robert Baloucoune, were both brought to the pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal fully 18 months ago but have been bedeviled by injuries since.

Andy Farrell on Leinster’s Harry Byrne: ‘He has an array in his attacking kicking game because his vision is very good.’ Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Andy Farrell on Leinster’s Harry Byrne: ‘He has an array in his attacking kicking game because his vision is very good.’ Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

“Again it’s his skillset,” said Farrell of Byrne. “He plays really quick, he flows in both sides, he’s able to play in front of him, he takes the ball to the line, his distribution, his speed of pass is very good and he’s also brave at taking people on as well. He has an array in his attacking kicking game because his vision is very good.

“Can they do all that at international level? I suppose that’s the opportunity. That’s what we’re here to find out which is great.”

Farrell had spoken with the Manchester-born, Ireland Under-20, Leicester centre Dan Kelly and was understanding about losing him to England. “I can see why he’s done what he’s done and good luck to him.”

He has also been keeping close tabs on Simon Zebo but, noting that Racing 92 have a French Championship semi-final next Friday against La Rochelle and thus he could also be involved in the final a week later, said players in Ireland deserved their chance.

“Zeebs will come back to Munster in pre-season, we’ll see how hungry he is to start the season well, how much he settles in as soon as possible. He’ll be a great option, because his passing game, his left-footed kicking game is exactly where it was.”

Ireland Summer Series Squad 2021

Backs

Will Addison (Ulster), Robert Baloucoune* (Ulster), Caolin Blade* (Connacht), Billy Burns (Ulster), Harry Byrne* (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Craig Casey (Munster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Shane Daly (Munster), Tom Daly* (Connacht), Chris Farrell (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster), Hugo Keenan (Leinster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)

Forwards

Ryan Baird (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Paul Boyle* (Connacht), Ed Byrne (Leinster), Gavin Coombes* (Munster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Peter Dooley* (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster), Dave Heffernan (Connacht), Rob Herring (Ulster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Ross Molony* (Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Tom O’Toole* (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Nick Timoney* (Ulster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Fineen Wycherley* (Munster)

Ireland Fixtures

Saturday July 3rd

Ireland v Japan, Aviva Stadium, 1pm (RTÉ & Channel 4)

Saturday July 10th

Ireland v USA, Aviva Stadium, 7.15pm (RTÉ & Channel 4)

* Denotes uncapped player

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