How can Andy Farrell build for the Six Nations over the coming weeks?

Future proof: our rugby writers pick their Ireland team for the 2021 tournament

What will the Ireland team be for the opening fixture in the 2021 Six Nations?  File photograph: Inpho

What will the Ireland team be for the opening fixture in the 2021 Six Nations? File photograph: Inpho

 

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell decided to stick rather than twist in personnel terms when naming his Ireland squad during the week for the start of the Autumn Nations Cup. Half a dozen front-line players remain absent through injury while Shane Daly, James Lowe and Billy Burns are the uncapped players in line for a debut.

The 2021 Six Nations might yet be pushed back a couple of months to March/April which would bring injured players into the mix. Nevertheless, we address what’s a desirable outcome from the Autumn Nations Cup, assess if there’s a back-up issue at halfback, whether Jacob Stockdale should remain as Ireland’s fullback and without the aid of a crystal ball look at an Ireland team for that opening fixture in the Six Nations.

Gerry Thornley

Should Ireland experiment across the four games in the Autumn Nations Cup?

With no world ranking points on offer to affect the World Cup draw and nothing like the prestige or prize fund of a Six Nations, it’s an opportunity to use all 34 players named in the squad. If not now, then when?

How important is it to find an alternative halfback combination and provide some meaningful high profile game time?

Seeing as the Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton pairing is still ahead of the rest, yes obviously. Of the contenders, Jamison Gibson-Park and Kieran Marmion both look worth a start or two, and ditto Ross Byrne and Billy Burns in this Autumn Nations Cup. The likes of Craig Casey, Harry Byrne and the Munster academy outhalves Jack Crowley, who looks the real deal, and Ben Healy, would be better served accumulating more game time and experience with their provinces.

Should Jacob Stockdale keep the Ireland number 15 jersey?

With Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo abroad, Jordan Larmour and Will Addison injured, and to accommodate James Lowe, on balance yes. He undoubtedly has defensive issues which need work, as well as coaching, but although largely overlooked amid the critique of his performance in Paris, the option which his left boot offered actually showed up well last Saturday. Especially those long clearances.

Should Ireland stick with Jacob Stockdale at fullback. File photograph: Inpho
Should Ireland stick with Jacob Stockdale at fullback. File photograph: Inpho

He’s still a game-breaker, offers a counter-attacking threat (recall that disallowed try for Hugo Keenan against Italy) and dropping him would damage his confidence. That said, the way Keenan has grasped his opportunity with both Leinster and Ireland to date makes him certainly worth looking at there in the Georgian game.

Name three players who you would like to see promoted to the Ireland squad

Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy and most of all a fit Joey Carbery.

Pick your Ireland team for the opening match of the 2021 Six Nations

Three months is a long way away and so much hinges on form and fitness, but unlike the Autumn Nations Cup, the Six Nations opener away to Wales demands Ireland put their best foot forward as well as having one eye on the future.

For example, this back three hinges on Stockdale and the defensive system being proven in the interim but with the option of Jordan Larmout, if fit, or Keith Earls in the mix as well, potentially it looks very potent. Lowe could add to the team’s ability to create something out of nothing. Bundee Aki, who consistently gives the team go-forward ball and provides infectious energy, and Ringrose are still the best midfield and likewise Murray and Sexton at halfback.

Rónan Kelleher (like Caelan Doris and Ryan Baird in due course) is the future and is the best carrier of the hookers, as well as being a good set-piece operator. Iain Henderson and Leavy bring power. The Ryan-Henderson combination has played relatively little together and is young enough to build a big partnership. Tadhg Beirne has just produced his best back-to-back tests and is a quality operator so leaving him out doesn’t sit well, but Baird is bigger and is also the future.

When you think of Ireland at their best, it usually included David Wallace or Sean O’Brien. Leavy coming back fit and anywhere near his best would be a huge boost. Failing that, Will Connors has done well, and he has a promising carrying game to go with his defensive line speed, work-rate and tackle execution.

Peter O’Mahony provides a valuable lineout option although Ruddock is curiously overlooked given his physique and power, particularly against the bigger teams.

Most of all though, Ireland need to beat Wales so as to take confidence and momentum in the game at home to France a week later.

Gerry Thornley’s Ireland team for 2021 Six Nations: Jacob Stockdale; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (Capt), Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Iain Henderson; Caelan Doris, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander. Replacements: Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson-Park, Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw.

Gavin Cummiskey

Should Ireland experiment across the four games in the Autumn Nations Cup?

No. Andy Farrell needs to win. Sort the lineout for Wales and send the strongest available 23 to Twickenham or face another thumping. Cap Harry Byrne and Craig Casey against Georgia.

How important is it to find an alternative halfback combination and provide some meaningful high profile game time?

Based on all the evidence, Casey and Harry Byrne can become the long term halfback pairing for Ireland. Ben Healy has also looked the part, albeit in the Pro14, but all three of them need to produce a consistent run of game-winning performances before skipping over Jamison Gibson Park, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath, John Cooney, Jack Carty and Ross Byrne.

Form matters. Casey and Harry Byrne should be looked at this winter, if not for Ireland then as relief pitchers behind Murray and Sexton in the Champions Cup. That’s the only sensible way to bring them through.

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton remain the first choice halfback pairing, but is it time for change? File photograph: Inpho
Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton remain the first choice halfback pairing, but is it time for change? File photograph: Inpho

Sexton’s disgust at being replaced at such a critical juncture against France was justified by what happened after he left the field. Yes, he conveyed it horribly but the 35-year-old is still miles out in front of the other outhalves. Tom Brady was just named NFC offensive player of the month at 43. Double down on the plyometrics until Joey Carbery, Byrne or Healy prove they are worthy of the weight that comes with wearing the 10 jersey. Until then, it is Johnny’s ball and he can take it home whenever he wants.

Should Jacob Stockdale keep the Ireland number 15 jersey?

Yes. Somebody needs to buy Stockdale a pair of Mikasa gloves. Problem solved. Start the 24-year-old against Wales and England because he possesses all the ingredients to be a world class fullback. He just needs to sort out his concentration under pressure and positional sense. This is entirely doable.

Name three players who you would like to see promoted to the Ireland squad

If they are ready, promote Tommy O’Brien, Roman Salanoa and Dan Leavy.

Fast tracking one of the young tightheads - Tom O’Toole, Jack Augier, Kenyon Knox or Salanoa - would allow for Andrew Porter’s smooth return to loosehead and all of a sudden Ireland have a very mobile and powerful frontrow.

Pick your Ireland team for the opening match of the 2021 Six Nations

Injury will spoil this selection from ever playing two games on the spin and it’s a big leap to presume Carbery, Tadhg Furlong and Dan Leavy will be ready in 13 weeks.

Carbery’s unknown recovery timeline, from that gamy ankle he played on during the 2019 World Cup, could stretch to summer or beyond, so Harry Byrne needs to be ready. Leo Cullen could block that idea by continuing to select Ross Byrne for Leinster.

Expect to see James Lowe and Bundee Aki starting most matches but the recent form of Robbie Henshaw and Hugo Keenan deserves inclusion ahead of the durable Kiwis. Also, Keith Earls is still the country’s best winger.

Ireland assistant coach John Fogarty is charged with growing the lineout skills of Ryan Baird and James Ryan (Cullen also plays a substantial role). Baird is comfortable calling off Ronán Kelleher’s throw and the set piece meltdown in Paris will help Ryan against Alun Wyn Jones. Promoting Tommy O’Brien, Dan Sheehan and Salanoa in February 2021 is wishful thinking but the Ireland bench needs a power surge.

Gavin Cummiskey’s Ireland team for 2021 Six Nations: Jacob Stockdale; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan; Johnny Sexton (Capt), Conor Murray; Andrew Porter, Ronán Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ryan Baird, James Ryan; CJ Stander, Dan Leavy, Caelan Doris. Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Roman Salanoa, Iain Henderson, Will Connors, Craig Casey, Joey Carbery, Tommy O’Brien.

John O’Sullivan

Should Ireland experiment across the four games in the Autumn Nations Cup?

Yes. Andy Farrell has already shown a willingness to promote talented young players and has been rewarded for his faith. He’ll understandably argue that winning breeds confidence and momentum and that it is a results driven business but if winning is the sole focus - it appears to be based on the squad confirmed earlier in the week - without evolutionary green shoots in playing and personnel terms, it represents a narrow outlook and a wasted opportunity.

Should Andy Farrell be more worried about results or developing his squad? File photograph: Inpho
Should Andy Farrell be more worried about results or developing his squad? File photograph: Inpho

Test rugby doesn’t normally offer much scope for experimentation; it shouldn’t simply be reserved for the Georgia match. If Ireland beat Wales and lose to England in the Nations Cup with a broadly similar team to the one that concluded the Six Nations it smacks of treading water.

Since the Grand Slam game in 2018 England have repeatedly left Ireland beaten and bruised and heading to London with a similar team and tactics is unlikely to positively affect the outcome. There are fundamental physical requirements but Ireland need to be bolder and more nuanced in outlook.

How important is it to find an alternative halfback combination and provide some meaningful high profile game time?

The halfback positions rightly belong to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton but a fight to drive and maintain high standards requires vigorous competition, one that is given time to manage games from the start; there’s little to be gained from allocating 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there to the back-up halfbacks.

It’s time to rigorously examine the credentials of the challengers. If Murray and Sexton start the Wales and England matches - break glass in case of emergency and put them on the bench - it’s ignoring the maxim that competition drives performance.

The Georgia game is the perfect opportunity to have a look at a couple of young halfback pairings. Michael Lowry has made 27 appearances for Ulster, including Champions Cup matches but primarily at fullback. Harry Byrne’s experience with Leinster (13 caps) is at Pro14 level, while Ben Healy (Munster) was involved in one European game in his six senior games for the province.

They’re all talented, promising prospects but it should be a graduated next step. They also need to fight to consistently grab a matchday jersey at their provinces for the big games. You cannot be third choice and expect to play for Ireland. Caolin Blade (Connacht) and Craig Casey (Munster) have spent time with the Irish squad and might get a jersey for the Georgia match.

Should Jacob Stockdale keep the Ireland number 15 Jersey?

Yes. He is Ireland’s premier attacking option, combining his footwork, strength, pace and a sharp appreciation of what’s possible. He has a prodigious left foot. His defence is currently an issue, as he learns on the job, compromised at times by handling and concentration. He needs to be switched on all the time and understand that his primary function in defence is to secure the ball; full stop. Tackling someone is a prerequisite. It’s definitely worth persevering with Stockdale as a fullback.

Name three players who you would like to see promoted to the Ireland squad

Not so much promotion but being restored. Rhys Ruddock because of his physicality on both sides of the ball coupled with pitch smarts, a fully fit Joey Carbery and Will Addison because they are good enough to start but from the bench have the talent and quality to change the course of a game.

Pick your Ireland team for the opening match of the 2021 Six Nations

Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour don’t have to swap positions necessarily but seeing the latter switch into outside centre in phase play or for a strike move would give him a little more space to use his devastating footwork. Form may bring players like Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Bundee Aki, James Lowe and Tadhg Beirne into the mix while injury might keep others out. The bench must have the capacity to impact significantly and that takes a special type of player.

John O’Sullivan’s Ireland team for 2021 Six Nations: Jacob Stockdale; Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander. Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter, Tom O’Toole, Ryan Baird, Caelan Doris, John Cooney, Joey Carbery, Will Addison.

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