Six Nations: Andy Farrell finding treasure in pool of uncapped Irish talent

Irish coach’s promise to bring emerging players into the squad yielding rewards

Aside from a "hit out" win over Wales, Saturday was another step forward and a continuation of Irish coach Andy Farrell's promise to constantly bring emerging players into the Irish squad.

All through 2021 new names have emerged and in Mack Hansen another was added to the list, with James Hume coming into a powerful Irish centre for a short run to add to the first cap he won last summer against the USA. Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan also got a first feel for Six Nations, having made his debut in November.

Hume may have preferred a longer run than the 20 or so minutes he got, but even squeezing into the centre between Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose with Robbie Henshaw looking on is a telling stride forward for the Ulster centre.

Hansen, with just nine games with Connacht, managed to do what Hugo Keenan did less than 18 months ago, which was to look like he had played international rugby all his life.

Hansen also accomplished what James Lowe was able to do. He brought his character with him onto the field and the crowd could see it. It was Johnny Sexton who probably summed up Hansen's contribution better than anyone.

Bedded in

“I’ve been really, really impressed,” said Sexton. “He’s a good guy, which is the most important thing. He has bedded in really well with the group. And his performance speaks for itself. Sometimes guys like himself, I compared him to Lowey a bit in that guys that are so elusive and breaking tackles sometimes don’t shine too much in training too often because we’re often not doing full contact.

“He broke so many tackles this evening so he’s going to shine in those games and we have seen it for Connacht. He brought that into the international arena and he’s got a game that’s made for international rugby so hopefully he continues to grow with us. It’s a great start for him.”

Hansen wasn't even on the radar last summer when Ireland started against the USA with four new names. Robert Baloucoune began on the right wing with Hume beside him at outside centre. The uncapped Tom O'Toole also started, as did the Dublin-born Ulster flanker Nick Timoney.

Looking at the other players of the summer – some of whom are likely to come into the current squad over the next four Six Nations matches – and Farrell’s drive to get bodies into the international system becomes apparent.

Craig Casey, with two previous caps, also started against the USA at scrumhalf while Ryan Baird, with four caps, began in the second row in his first start for Ireland. Caelan Doris began the match with eight caps and Gavin Coombes with one.

In the replacements was Munster's Fineen Wycherly, the Connacht pair of Paul Boyle and Caolin Blade and Leinster's Harry Byrne, all at that stage uncapped, with Ulster's Will Addison on his fourth cap and Dave Heffernan and Ed Byrne on five each.

Raking through

Since Farrell's appointment as head coach after Joe Schmidt in 2019, he has not been slow in raking through the pool of Irish talent. It was Farrell who also brought Lowe into international waters when he became eligible to play for Ireland under the residency rule in 2020. The New Zealand-born winger debuted against Wales in that year's November series.

When he picked this year's extended 37-man squad, just Hansen and Ulster's Michael Lowry were uncapped.

“It’s important to get everyone up and running as well within the squad and also we’ve a few guys on the outer who didn’t play today who are going to be fully fit for next week,” said Farrell.

Agree or not with his choices, Farrell has found a new fullback, two new wingers, a new centre and several new options in the secondrow and backrow positions.

He has also licensed all of his players to use their skill sets, ie to run and pass, with prop Tadhg Furlong holding a regular slot in the offensive Irish backline. Farrell has installed Jamison Gibson-Park as first-choice scrumhalf over Conor Murray, which bleeds into his way of Ireland playing a higher-tempo game.

Just as well then he is unearthing the players to play that way.