Rugby statistics: Ireland opportunity yet to knock for Tom Farrell
Absence of an Ireland development squad has left a vacuum for emerging talent
Thomas Farrell: has been in impressive form for Connacht this season. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
There mightn’t have been many tears shed when the IRFU opted not to participate in the Tbilisi Cup after the 2015 tournament or decided that there was no longer a place in the cluttered fixture corridor of international rugby for the Ireland Wolfhounds team.
It’s almost three years ago to the month that the shadow Irish senior side last played, an 18-9 defeat to the England Saxons.
However the absence of an Emerging Ireland or Ireland Wolfhounds teams has left something of a vacuum between the national Under-20 and senior teams in terms of access to international rugby.
Tournaments like the Churchill Cup, Tbilisi Cup and IRB Nations Cup served a purpose in bridging that gap between age-grade rugby and the Ireland team, so too what used to be called ‘A’ internationals.
A cursory examination on the last Emerging Ireland squad that won the Tbilisi Cup (2015), one led by Rhys Ruddock – he was also captain in 2013 – highlights the significant number of players that went on to win senior caps: Rob Herring, Stephen Archer, Finlay Bealham, James Cronin, Dan Leavy, Stuart McCloskey, Andrew Conway and Tiernan O’Halloran offer a brief rather than comprehensive listing.
The options open to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt in trying to maximise exposure to international rugby for promising young players post Under-20 level – it was a similar scenario for his predecessors – are constrained by genuine opportunities; the exception are British & Irish Lions’ years when Ireland undertake summer tours to the Americas and Japan, minus eight to a dozen or front-line players.
It’s not as if Schmidt has been reluctant to recognise or reward young talent, far from it. Last November against Argentina Adam Byrne became the 49th player to make his debut during the New Zealander’s tenure.
But in tracing a timeline back from the 2019 World Cup in Japan – not taking into consideration any warm-up matches ahead of the tournament – there are two Six Nations Championships (2018, 2019), one November Test window (2018) and a three-Test summer tour to Australia (2018) where the primary focus will be on winning rather than development for obvious reasons.
So if an Irish player hasn’t got a cap by now it’s going to be difficult to break through that ceiling, not impossible as will be proven, potentially in the case of Leinster’s Jordan Larmour for example, but it may be more difficult for Connacht’s, Dublin-born centre Thomas Farrell.
Farrell, who turns 25 next week, was a product of Castleknock College, the Leinster academy, Lansdowne and an Irish underage international before moving briefly to London Irish and then agreeing a contract with the Bedford Blues in the English Championship. Midway through the 2016-2017 season Connacht came calling and he managed to extricate himself from the contract, a prescient move for both player and province.
He has excelled alongside Bundee Aki in the Connacht midfield, an assertion substantiated from a statistical perspective in examining the Opta stats for the first 12 rounds of the Guinness Pro14.
Farrell has carried more ball (156), beaten more defenders (44) and offloaded more (34), than any other player in the tournament. Obviously all figures are hugely influenced by the number of matches played by an individual.
For the purposes of the graphic, the leading player in each of the eight categories is shown in red and is then followed only by Irish internationals or Irish qualified players and doesn’t include for example Ulster’s former All Black Charles Piutau, who features prominently in several categories.
In all competitions this season Farrell has played 913 minutes in 14 appearances, scoring four tries, but despite his consistently high level of performance it’s difficult to see how he can muscle his way towards an Irish cap.
Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki are likely to dispute the two centre positions for Ireland’s opening Six Nations match against France in Paris next month while if there was to be an injury or two then next in line are Stuart McCloskey and Chris Farrell, both of whom have a brace of caps.
Thomas Farrell would benefit from a graduated stepping stone to Test rugby but at present there isn’t one.
He’s not alone. Munster’s 23-year-old Macclesfield-born, former Irish Under-20 wing Alex Wootton, is another who has performed superbly this season and also featuring prominently in a variety of categories, not to mention equalling the tournament try-scoring record for a single game with four against the Cheetahs last September.
While both Thomas Farrell and Wootton need to refine and develop further aspects of their game they must do so without access to Test rugby for the foreseeable future.