comment How Autumn Nations Cup offers chance for head coach to develop game plan ahead of Six Nations
IF Ireland are to heal in time for the next Six Nations, the process must begin tonight.
Paris left more marks on a team still wounded from their dreadful 2019 and next week’s trip to Twickenham looms large.
Wales at home is the bridge between those two daunting fixtures.
Andy Farrell has made changes to his team and sent the message out that nobody is guaranteed that rotation will work both ways next week. Play well here and you’ll be in the team against England.
After five games in his first year in charge, Farrell now has four in four weeks and they offer him a chance to truly assess what he’s working with, while at the same time growing squad depth, improving the game-plan and rebuilding the team’s broken belief system.
It’s a lot to get through, but that’s the gig.
A defeat to a Wales side who travel to Dublin on the back of five straight losses would not be a disaster, but it would serve to reinforce the impression that the team are stuck in a rut.
In reality, there is not much that can happen tonight to change that perception.
Next week is the big one. Ireland must perform in Twickenham to cast the doubts over the team to one side.
For now, the mission is to beat Wales well while showing signs of growth.
A good performance from James Lowe on debut would help to give the impression that things are on the up. The abrasive Kiwi winger will give the backline some much-needed personality.
At half-back, Jamison Gibson-Park’s job is to light a fire under Conor Murray and supply Johnny Sexton with the kind of possession he needs to give Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell the opportunity to attack.
Despite his size, it is Farrell’s creative edge that Ireland must unleash. It’s up to him to make life uncomfortable for the watching Bundee Aki.
Much will depend on Ireland’s supply of possession and ability to win the collisions.
Rónan Kelleher’s selection at hooker is long overdue. Ireland have picked a tall back five to offer him support out of touch and if he can get his throw right, then the Leinster man can make the No 2 shirt his own.
Rob Herring has done a decent job, but tonight’s starter is a better carrier whose involvements always carry impact.
Along with Cian Healy and Andrew Porter, there is a lot of power in Ireland’s front-row.
Iain Henderson’s experience will help, but he’ll have to play well to stop Tadhg Beirne coming back in next week.
He and Peter O’Mahony (below) have coughed up silly red cards at provincial level recently and Farrell will be watching the Ulster and Munster captains closely as they return to the team.
O’Mahony knows his place is under pressure and with his central contract up at the end of the season, he needs to get himself back into a position where he’s an automatic choice.
That’s where Farrell wants his leading lights.
For too long, the top men were far too secure in their positions in the squad.
Sexton’s well-documented strop at the Stade de France suggests he still feels undroppable and he’s probably right at this stage, but Farrell wants to get to a place where everyone is playing for their place every time they take the field.
Josh van der Flier is another example of a man who must perform, having missed out on the last two games.
Will Connors is on the bench, Dan Leavy is slowly but surely getting back on track and Scott Penny is ripping things up back at Leinster.
Caelan Doris completes a back-row that looks nicely balanced. The youngster is learning on the job and will learn from his post-yellow card struggles in Paris. Farrell needs him to learn quickly.
On the bench, he’ll be looking for more from the front-row replacements who all struggled in Paris. The addition of Quinn Roux will help with the scrum.
In the backs, Farrell will be watching Murray’s response closely. The scrum-half has been way off his own high performance levels and playing him back into form hasn’t really worked.
Beside him, Billy Burns is the latest deputy to Sexton to be picked in the No 22 shirt. His mission is to establish himself as the No 2 by coming on and running the show.
Keith Earls will bring valuable experience off the bench and his arrival may offer Hugo Keenan a chance to play full-back for a little while as Farrell continues to assess his options.
Personnel aside, he will be looking for a dominant scrum and a functioning lineout.
If that provides the platform, then he’ll be looking for a highly-aggressive breakdown on both sides of the ball and dominant contact work from his players.
That will allow the team to unleash the wide attack that never really saw the light of day against the French, where Ireland left plenty of scores on the field.
It is Ireland’s work without the ball that will be most telling tonight.
Against France, their defensive disorganisation cost them.
Romain Ntamack spoke after the game of the “fear” in the eyes in the Irish defenders when France had the ball. Wales don’t have the same array of threats, but they have plenty of good players.
Wayne Pivac has picked a strong side and the players will not lack for motivation.
The forecast is for decent weather and the pitch at Lansdowne Road will afford both teams the chance to play.
“It’s a fresh slate so a great opportunity to bounce back straight away,” Keenan said.
“Normally at the end of a Six Nations you’d be going back to your provinces and finishing with a defeat could linger over you for a while, but we’ve got a great opportunity to right those wrongs and get back into the swing of things and hopefully get a bit of silverware over the next couple of weeks.”
The trophy feels secondary to the performance at this stage, although Irish rugby has not got to the point where it can turn up its nose at success, no matter how contrived the competition.
For Farrell, this is a key period in his tenure. The 2021 Six Nations looks like a good time to lay down a marker and, if the team are to be ready to do that, they need to improve hugely in the next four weeks.
Tonight, they face a tricky challenge against a dangerous opponent and they’ll need to play well to win.
At home, with so many fresh faces, they should have enough.
Verdict: Ireland 19 Wales 15
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