As the familiar saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. There is both an optimistic and pessimistic perspective to this cynical epigram in the context of the recent fortunes of the Irish rugby team. Optimists will gladly accept this statement when examining Joe Schmidt’s record as Ireland’s head coach: three Six Nations championships, including a Grand Slam, historical victories against the Springboks and Australia, and two unforgettable wins over the ever mighty All Blacks. Pessimists, however, will point an accusing finger at the single stain on Schmidt’s record; two miserable exits from the World Cup at the quarter-final stage. After much hype and promise, the boys in green entered the World Cup as literal kings of the world with them atop the World Rugby rankings. They exited with their tails between their legs after an utterly shambolic performance against New Zealand, and more questions than answers upon touching down in Dublin.
Andy Farrell, Ireland’s defence coach under Schmidt, takes the reigns at a time of turbulence in Irish rugby. Promising young fly-half Joey Carberry is confirmed to be ruled out of the upcoming Six Nations with a broken wrist. He joins a growing list of talent, such as Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, and Tadhg Beirne, who will watch Ireland’s campaign from the stands. Ireland must also deal with the loss of captain Rory Best to retirement.
Farrell has now announced his 36-man squad for this year’s Championship, featuring a promising combination of youth and experience. The talismanic Jonathon Sexton is taking charge of the captain’s armband. As he’s still recuperating and has had no game time before the tournament, it would not be surprising to see Peter O’Mahony take the reins in his stead. Sexton’s potential absence would create an opportunity for Ross Byrne or uncapped Ulsterman, Billy Burns, to take the number ten shirt. Rob Kearney is among the notable absentees, as was expected after his exclusion from the “stocktake” in December. As a result, Ireland will likely be seeing more of Jordan Larmour. The 22-year-old flyer has seen a marked improvement in his defensive abilities of late, but Kearney’s dominance in the air will be missed. Perhaps it might be evidence of Ireland moving on from having this tactic in their repertoire.
Leinster’s dominance in both their European and Pro 14 campaigns see them boast the most selections with 16 players. The aforementioned injuries to Conan and Leavy present a chance for Max Deegan and Caelan Doris to stake a claim for further inclusion. Both players, currently uncapped, have been in stellar form for Leinster, with ten tries between them so far this season. Devin Toner has played himself back into contention with his recent performances, especially against fierce rivals Munster, and his connection with his Leinster teammate, and likely starter, James Ryan will be key.
Munster scrum-half, Conor Murray, has the most questions to answer of any Irish player following the World Cup. Throughout the 2010s, he was regularly touted as the best scrum-half in the world but his play-calling in the quarter-final inspired little confidence. Despite an impressive performance against Ospreys in the Champions Cup last weekend, Murray has been out of sorts this season and now, all eyes are on John Cooney. The form player in Ireland, and arguably in Europe, is playing some of the best rugby of his career and is entirely unstoppable for Ulster. With nine tries this season, his quick pace and smart support running makes him a threat all over the pitch. He also is Ulster’s goal-kicker, an additional string in his bow when it comes time to pick the starting number nine.
Ireland will kick-off their campaign at home against Scotland on February 1. Recent history favours the home side here, with their best performance of the World Cup coming against their Celtic neighbours. Scotland is one of only two teams to enter this year’s tournament retaining the same coach as last year, with England’s Eddie Jones keeping his position also. Head-coach, Gregor Townsend, is looking to silence critics after Scotland’s miserable performance in Japan saw them outmuscled by Ireland and outclassed by the tournament hosts resulted in a humiliating exit at the pool stages. Townsend must also deal with the retirement of his captain, Greig Laidlaw. The parallels between the two sides cannot be ignored and while this match is far from a must-win, one feels that it is an opportunity to banish any lingering demons from the World Cup.
The next challenge for Ireland is a clash with Wales. New Zealander, Wayne Pivac will take over from Warren Garland and hope to see Wales capitalise on their World Cup form and make a serious attempt at retaining their title. Ireland actually beat Wales in back to back fixtures before the World Cup but recent form suggests this game will be a tightly fought contest. Wales are fully stocked with no major injuries to speak of and their cohesion between forwards and backs has never been stronger. Whether Pivac can replicate the tactical mastery of Garland remains to be seen. Ireland’s tactic of controlling possession and territory never got out of first gear at times in the autumn. Wales’ physical pack will be the first real test of this Irish team under the Farrell era.
Eddie Jones’s England will be stinging following their loss in the World Cup final after they battered the All Blacks in the semi-finals, and they will no doubt relish a victory over their rivals from across the Irish Sea. The same could be said of Ireland who will be out for revenge following their chastising defeat at home to England on the opening day of the 2019 tournament that sent them into a tailspin for the rest of the year. Farrell might be willing to keep his cards close to his chest in order to beat his home country, who are captained by his son, Owen. England will sorely miss the ball carrying prowess of Billy Vunipola, ruled out through injury, and Jones hasn’t selected a specialist number eight. But the team is bigger than one man, even someone as physically imposing as Vunipola, and it will take something special to overcome this England side when their tails are up.
Things get relatively easier for Ireland when they return to Lansdowne Road two weeks later to face an Italian side coached by Franco Smith who takes the reigns following Conor O’Shea’s unexpected departure in the wake of Italy’s elimination from the World Cup. This will be the swansong one of the all-time giants of rugby, Sergio Parisse, who has announced he will retire at the conclusion of this year’s tournament. His captaincy has passed to Luca Bigi who will lead this exciting Italian team into the 2020 Championship. Despite the commendable work of O’Shea in bringing greater professionalism to Italian rugby at the domestic level, the Azzurri’s ability to topple Tier 1 nations has yet to truly take effect. But that is not to say that they cannot pose problems for other teams. Matteo Minozzi will be delighted to pull on the blue jersey after a year on the sidelines and Tommasso Allan is a danger both as a playmaker and a try-scorer.
Ireland will close their 2020 Six Nations campaign with a daunting encounter against France in the Stade de France. New coach Fabien Galthie has decided to name 19 uncapped players in his 42-man squad for the tournament and is yet another coach dealing with a retired captain. The exit of acclaimed hooker Guilhem Guirado has seen the captaincy handed over to Charles Ollivon, who has just 11 international caps to his name. Teddy Thomas has also been recalled to the squad after being frozen out of the national team by Brunel. With lightning pace and clever footwork, he will relish the opportunity to prove himself on the international stage once more. This will be a truly intriguing encounter between two sides who are beginning the decade with new coaches and new captains.
Andy Farrell will have a tough act to follow in the wake of Joe Schmidt’s departure. The Kiwi left a truly distinct mark on Irish rugby; turning Leinster from a competitive club to a European heavyweight and his six-year tenure as Ireland’s head coach which saw them earn their first two victories over the All Blacks. Farrell may not have had as much time as he would have liked with the squad as many players were rested after the World Cup. But his decision to bring in fresh faces and picking the squad based largely on form rather than favour are risks worth taking. Irish rugby fell truly stagnant in 2019 and it will take ingenuity, belief and a sprinkling of pixie dust if we are to have a chance at reaching the heights of our former glory.