By Phil Rice
The disappointment of Ireland’s failure to progress beyond the quarter-finals yet again, at the 2019 World Cup, is thankfully receding in the rear view mirror.
Fresh hope has been ignited by the outstanding form of both Leinster and Ulster this season.
Leinster, in particular, have unearthed some players of genuine quality during their unbeaten run to date.
It was disappointing that Joe Schmidt, who had done so much for Irish rugby, should depart under something of a cloud.
With so much expected from 2019, after the outstanding success its predecessor brought, Irish rugby fans began this season in a deflated mood.
However, new head coach Andy Farrell has promised a fresh approach, with players being given an opportunity to express themselves without the constraints of a rigid game plan.
Schmidt has been criticised for his conservatism and lack of flexibility and it appears that Farrell’s approach will resemble Leinster’s more expansive style.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 28, 2020
While this has been greeted with widespread approval, the pudding needs to be eaten before conclusive acceptance of his approach will be forthcoming.
Prior to 2019, Irish fans had become accustomed to a diet of success. They will need convincing that the new regime can return them to that situation.
It’s a demanding position in which Farrell finds himself. A number of the tried and tested players failed in Japan and the appetite is for change and innovation.
But Farrell is an experienced coach and is unlikely to indulge in wholesale changes.
He’s more likely to use this Six Nations to assess the growing talent pool at his disposal, and the inclusion of development players among his squad shows that he is casting his net widely, and intends to consider all options.
Three of those development players come from Leinster. Ryan Baird, a real second row prospect in the James Ryan mould. Harry Byrne is an exciting fly-half prospect and brother of Ross, and Will Conners, who has really caught the eye this season at open side flanker. Also included is Ulster flyer Robert Balacoune.
The retirement of captain Rory Best has necessitated a replacement and Farrell has opted for the experience of Johnny Sexton.
There were calls for 23-year-old James Ryan to be installed in that role, but pragmatism prevailed. But most observers feel that Ryan’s turn is not far away.
Transition seems to be the order of the day for most of the Six Nation’s teams. Along with Ireland, new head coaches have been recruited by France, Wales and Italy.
This weekend’s opening matches will be revealing as to the approach of those incoming coaches.
Watch: An exclusive interview with Andy Farrell on his team selection for Ireland’s #GuinnessSixNations opener.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 28, 2020
There is a feeling that France’s introduction of several players from their Under 20 World Cup winning sides of the past two years will bring a more vibrant approach that could surprise England in Paris.
New coach Fabien Galthie has excluded a number of experienced players from their squad and there appears to be an emphasis on a return to the traditional attacking characteristics of French sides of bygone years.
Grand Slam holders Wales have replaced coach Warren Gatland with New Zealander Wayne Pivac, who has been in charge at Scarlets for the past three seasons.
Captain Alan Wyn Jones suggested last week, that a period of bedding in for the new coaching team may occur and that expectations for immediate success should be tempered.
Conor O’Shea, the erstwhile coach of Italy, has taken up a development role with the RFU and is replaced by former South African international Franco Smith, at least on an interim basis.
Italian rugby has not developed as many had hoped in recent years and the role of head coach has become something of a poisoned chalice.
The recent improved form of Benetton has given hope of an upturn in fortunes, but it is difficult to see them finishing anywhere but last, yet again.
Saturday’s visit to the Principality Stadium is a daunting prospect for Smith’s team and their target will probably be more along the lines of damage limitation.
After an outstanding victory over New Zealand in the recent World Cup semi-final, England head coach Eddie Jones was desperately disappointed by their rather limp performance against South Africa in the final.
His less than modest announcement last week that his target in the coming seasons was to make England the greatest international team of all time, will have done nothing to diminish their opposition’s desire to capture their scalp.
Sunday’s match in Paris will be eagerly awaited by all rugby fans, and most non-English supporters will be shouting for the home side in the light of Jones’s recent comments.
However, apart from the World Cup final England had an impressive 2019 and are justifiable favourites for this year’s tournament.
Billy Vunipola’s broken arm is a blow to their chances but their strength in depth is such that their odds have changed little on the back of it. It is the fourth broken arm the player has suffered in four years.
Ireland’s opening weekend opponents, Scotland, had an even more disappointing World Cup than Schmidt’s team.
They have turned to Stuart Hogg as their captain after Stuart McInally disappointed in Japan.
Coach Gregor Townsend showed his determination to instil a discipline within his team by dropping his talismanic fly-half Finn Russell for disobeying team orders at their recent training get-together.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 28, 2020
Adam Hastings, who is a capable player, will replace the exciting Russell but the beleaguered Scottish supporters will be hugely annoyed that one of their few potential game-changers is no longer available to them.
It is unclear whether Russell will patch up his differences with the coach and return later in the tournament.
With so many changes to both the management and players of this year’s contending sides, the form of the teams is more unpredictable than usual.
Ireland have, almost infuriatingly, excelled between World Cups and disappointed at the event itself.
Supporters should give new coach Farrell the breathing space to develop a strategy to rectify this sequence.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 29, 2020
The introduction of some of the exceptional talent emerging, particularly in Leinster, could spark optimism for the next generation of Irish players.
In order to re-ignite enthusiasm from Irish fans, Farrell needs to be less conservative than his predecessor and give opportunities to that emerging talent.
There may be short term risks in this approach, but the strategy should reap longer term rewards.
Ireland Team vs Scotland: J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, T Furlong; I Henderson, J Ryan; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, C Doris.
Replacements: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, A Porter, D Toner, P O’Mahony, J Cooney, R Byrne, R Henshaw.