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festive wish Andy Farrell’s Christmas wish list as he looks to a profitable 2022

Coach will hope autumn can be springboard, but lack of games a real issue

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Ireland head coach Andy Farrell before the Autumn Nations Series match between Ireland and Argentina at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell before the Autumn Nations Series match between Ireland and Argentina at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell before the Autumn Nations Series match between Ireland and Argentina at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

No doubt, when Andy Farrell and the big man meet, the opening salvo will be a bit of mutual beard appreciation; game recognising game.

Then, it’ll be on to the important business.

Farrell can reflect on a 2021 that got better as it went on, he can tuck into his turkey content in the knowledge that his team is trending upwards, that they have a couple of statement wins to their name and have grown the squad.

When his side signed off for the season with that big win over Argentina, they could look forward to 2022 with relish.

A realistic Six Nations tilt, a three Test tour of New Zealand and a November series that is likely to pit Ireland against World Cup pool rivals and world champions South Africa should road test Farrell’s side for the big show in France a year later.

Still, any coach who has managed through the pandemic knows not to get ahead of themselves.

With Omicron disrupting the Christmas schedule, Farrell will know that the best laid plans can be ripped to shreds in a matter of hours.

So, as he lifts his quill and outlines his Christmas wishes on his letter to Santa, the Ireland coach will have a few things on his mind.

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Carty

Carty

Carty


1 – A run of games for his big players

The unfolding situation at Leinster has a big knock on effect for Ireland.

Since the Argentina game, the province – who are bulk-suppliers to the national team – have played three games against Ulster, Connacht and Bath.

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Andy Farrell

Andy Farrell

Andy Farrell

Last Friday’s trip to France was canned because of their Covid-19 outbreak, while the St Stephen’s Day derby against Munster has also been claimed.

They’re due to go to Ulster on New Year’s Day, but their subsequent match against the Lions of South Africa has been postponed. Then, it’s Montpellier and Bath. They play Cardiff the weekend before the Six Nations, but the internationals would normally be in Ireland camp by then.

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Some of Ireland’s biggest hitters haven’t played in six weeks and may only have three more windows to get a game before it all kicks off again.

After the win over New Zealand, Farrell’s side had huge momentum but when they regather that could be lost due to circumstances beyond their control.


2 – Carty’s continued upward curve

He has yet to play a minute under Farrell, but Jack Carty looks primed for a return to the green of Ireland this Spring.

Joey Carbery is likely to miss at least the start of the Six Nations with injury, while Johnny Sexton is one of those who hasn’t played a minute since Ireland beat New Zealand on November 14.

Harry Byrne was third choice in that window, but he needs a run of games before he can be considered a Six Nations starter after a disjointed year.

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VDF

VDF

VDF

While Ross Byrne and Billy Burns were in favour last season, both have fallen behind and Carty’s growth as a player and a leader marks him out as the clear, in-form No 10 in the country right now.

Backed by Andy Friend and playing well, consistently and regularly, the Athlone native has taken his opportunity to build a compelling case for not only squad inclusion but a place in the match-day 23.

And, while Farrell may have been reluctant to select Carty initially, he’ll happily accept him back as a form option who has taken his disappointment the right way, channelling the hurt into his Connacht performances and improving all the time.

He gained big match experience at the last World Cup and would flourish in Ireland’s attacking structure.

It could be a big year if he can stay fit.


3 – Green light for the ‘A-team’

Ultan Dillane spent a month in camp last month without seeing a minute’s action.

How much that played into his decision to leave Connacht at the end of the season we don’t yet know, but you’d have to think that a player gets sick of holding tackle bags at national camp at some point in his life.

Farrell wants his first team to be hard to get into, but he also doesn’t want a large contingent of a big squad moping around for entire windows.

‘A’ games are the solution, but again the pandemic might stand in his way.

It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but the IRFU have been working on extra fixtures during the Six Nations window, while the summer tour of New Zealand could feature a fixture against the Maori All Blacks and one of the Super Rugby franchises.

What price, Joe Schmidt’s Auckland Blues?

Throw in the re-arranged fixture against the United States in Las Vegas which will likely be re-fixed for October and you’ve a nice slew of games to try players on the fringes, ensure they get some game time during windows and to find a few gems who might add to the overall picture.


4 – A meaningful tour

It would be a real shame for Farrell to go through an entire World Cup cycle without taking the team on tour.

Three Tests in New Zealand in July, plus two midweek games, off the coach the chance to get up close and personal for a long period of time, testing the team and building bonds that he hopes will last into the tournament in France.

Covid-19 has claimed the 2020 tour of Australia, while Ireland were denied the chance to go to Fiji last year.

The New Zealand tour is an essential part of the team-building towards that World Cup, losing it would be a big blow and matches in Dublin just won’t test the team in the same way.


5 – The rise of Tom O’Toole

The key to Ireland’s performances in November was the redeployment of Andrew Porter on the loosehead side of the scrum and the selection of Rónan Kelleher at hooker.

That meant that the team had ball-handling, powerful carriers in Nos 1, 2 and 3 who are equally adept at scrummaging.

While there are good players beneath them on the depth chart, perhaps only hooker Dan Sheehan offers the same level of physicality, skill and athleticism as the man he is covering.

Cian Healy is still well-capable of performing, but while he once could do what Porter does he is in the twilight of his career. Beneath him, Dave Kilcoyne is also in his 30s but offers a strong carrying game.

Tighthead remains a significant issue, particularly if Tadhg Furlong goes down.

Most likely, Porter will revert to the No 3 shirt in that scenario; at least until Ulster’s Tom O’Toole can take the next step.

Finlay Bealham has been an able deputy, but Ireland appear to love what O’Toole has to offer and have invested significant time and energy into his development.

Starting in the win over Clermont was a significant step for the Ulster tighthead whose in a battle with Ireland’s forgotten man Marty Moore for the No 3 jersey there.

Owning that shirt and kicking on physically would add another string to Ireland’s bow.


6 – Rediscovering Larmour

Jordan Larmour was the forgotten man of Ireland’s autumn, one of a host of players who didn’t play a minute there was barely a whisper about the Leinster back three star who was once being compared to Christian Cullen.

Just four years ago, Larmour lit up the Christmas intepro at Thomond Park with a scintillating counter-attacking try.

He was nominated for the 2018 world young player of the year award and featured heavily in the Grand Slam, the series win in Australia and the win over New Zealand that year.

In 2019, he started Ireland’s opening World Cup game at full-back and was unlucky not to make the cut for later games. When Farrell took over, Larmour was his No 15.

Now, Hugo Keenan owns that jersey for club and country and the Dubliner appears to have lost his way to a degree.

At Leinster, he’s regularly played on the wing but he’s behind Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Robert Baloucoune at national level.

Jacob Stockdale is another reasonably forgotten man, but at 24 Larmour has so much time on his side and so much talent to burn that he can have a second coming.

If he can rediscover his attacking impetus and find consistency in the air, he can be a real asset to Ireland in 2022.


7 – A Leavy lease of life

Is it too much to ask for a Christmas miracle?

Dan Leavy last played for Ireland in November 2018 and more than three years on his body has been through the absolute mill.

Can he get back to the force that drove Leinster and Ireland to those heights during their most successful year?

There have been signs at provincial level that he is moving more freely and hitting hard.

Josh van der Flier has kicked on to a new level in the last 18 months, but Leavy can play across the back-row and brings a mindset and aggressiveness that can elevate Ireland if he can just stay fit consistently.

His first challenge is get into the Leinster starting back-row and dominate, but if his body plays ball he’s got the full package to thrive at Test level.


How 2022 is shaping up for Andy Farrell and Ireland

The Six Nations

Saturday, February 5: Ireland v Wales

Saturday, February 12: France v Ireland

Sunday, February 27: Ireland v Italy

Saturday, March 12: England v Ireland

Saturday, March 19: Ireland v Scotland

Summer tour of New Zealand

Saturday, July 9: New Zealand v Ireland

Saturday, July 16: New Zealand v Ireland

Saturday: July 23: New Zealand v Ireland

Autumn internationals (possible schedule, opponents and order to be confirmed)

Saturday, October 29: USA v Ireland

Saturday, November 5: Ireland v South Africa

Saturday, November 12: Ireland v TBC (Tier 2 side)

Saturday, November 19: Ireland v Australia

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