Six Nations: Andy Farrell wary of ‘blooding’ young Ireland players in Italy
Uncapped talents Harry Byrne and Craig Casey have to be ready, says Ireland coach
Leinster’s Harry Byrne has been ‘on the radar for some time for us, but it’s been unbelievably stop-start and he’s had a bad back’. Photograph: Robbie Stephenson/Inpho
There is, if not a clamour, a desire for change; a feeling that the forthcoming game against Italy in the Guinness 2021 Six Nations is an ideal opportunity to blood talented young players like Craig Casey and Harry Byrne.
Rather than revert to the tried and trusted Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton axis for a 64th time as the Irish “9/10”, now that the title is out of reach already, the case for blooding the uncapped 21-year-olds (they will turn 22 three days apart in April) has seemingly been strengthened.
The argument is further strengthened by the likelihood of Italy again starting with the 19-year-old Stephen Varney and 20-year-old Paolo Garbisi (who was given his Test debut after just one Pro14 game) in Rome.
However, Andy Farrell maintains that the Irish coaching staff have to be sure young, uncapped players are ready.
“You talk about Harry, for example. Harry has played about 95 minutes or 98 minutes in 10 weeks. Eighty of those were a couple of weeks ago against the Scarlets. He is a guy that’s been on the radar for some time for us, but it’s been unbelievably stop-start and he’s had a bad back,” said Farrell in relation to the injury which forced Byrne out before the kick-off in Leinster’s win over Northampton last December when due to make his European debut.
“We brought him in last week,” added Farrell. “We tried to give him a little bit of experience. But we can’t throw in any kid – not just Harry – by just guessing. You’ve got to have them in the environment or they’ve got to earn the right to get into this environment. Why? Because the guys that are in the environment, they’ve worked bloody hard to get here as well.
“So, it’s the balance and the reason I say it’s difficult at this stage is just because of the situation, with the Covid, it’s been stop-start and it’s hard for a kid to get continuity and keep getting selected. There’s a bit of bad luck that goes that way, so all of those things have to come into play and then regarding selection in this squad.”
Farrell also cited the examples of Tom O’Toole, Ryan Baird and Casey as players who’ve been brought into the squad, and the “absolutely priceless” experience for O’Toole of working with multi-capped props such as Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong.
“Whether he [O’Toole] gets to play or not is a different story because he has to be ready and we’ve got to understand that because we’ve got to be fair to the team and to the player himself. The same goes for Craig as well – along with Ryan Baird, Harry. These guys we have all earmarked. But, we’ve got to make sure that they’re ready.”
A similar scenario applies with the provinces, where coaches are charged with the need to win matches, all the more so when playing in Europe or in crunch Pro14 games. So it is that when it comes to those matches, Johann van Graan and Leo Cullen have preferred JJ Hanrahan and Ross Byrne to Ben Healy and Harry Byrne.
“The same problem happens at club,” said Farrell. “Guys are earning their stripes, who are training and playing well week in, week out – they’ve earned the right to get picked. You don’t just throw a kid in there, just for the sake of bringing another kid through. The kid has got to prove his worth on a daily basis in training and show his worth when it matters.
“Hopefully, that all accumulates into a process where they get to play in some big games, under pressure,” the Ireland head coach added, as opposed to relatively routine wins in which they’ll invariably break down opponents with better players around them.
We’ve watched the Italian side, they’re playing some good rugby, as they proved last week at Twickenham. They caused all sorts of trouble
“That’s not the way it’s coached or played at international level. Exposure to big games is crucial for international players.”
Not only that, Farrell might have added, but performing exceptionally when exposed as well is crucial.
Harry partners his brother Ross for the first time as a 10-12 combination for Leinster against the Dragons on Friday night, begging the question as to whether Farrell has any influence on Leo Cullen’s selections.
“I speak to Leo constantly, I speak to all the coaches at least a couple of times a week. Leo is always telling me what’s going on within the club,” said Farrell.
“There’s always a feeling amongst myself and any of the coaches, we’re free and easy to say exactly what we want to one another but at the end of the day the provincial coaches certainly have the right to pick the side that he wants.”
Farrell described France as a team on an upward curve, but admitted Ireland are “a bit less upward” and in all of his selections to face Italy there’s also a need to respect what he described as “dangerous” opponents.
“We’ve been analysing them for the last couple of weeks and if you just looked at the scorelines you’d say that everything should be rosy, but we know the facts.
“We’ve watched the Italian side, they’re playing some good rugby, as they proved last week at Twickenham. They caused all sorts of trouble. If you don’t respect the game in general, you can come unstuck. A couple of times, teams have tried to approach the game a little differently and have really come unstuck against Italy and that’s in the recent past as well.”