Andy Farrell has more questions than answers for his team after Ireland’s Six Nations campaign ended in a disappointing 35-27 defeat to France in Paris. The defeat handed England the title for the third time in five years with Ireland finishing third losing to the new look French side.
It would be fair to say that it has been a mixed bag for Andy Farrell’s charges which will be remembered mainly for the sobering defeat at Twickenham and the defeat against the French last Saturday week. The overall performance was not helped by the 7-month break due to Covid-19 which left new coach Farrell, with limited time with the players to prepare for two crucial games.
There have been positives however for the team with a number of fresh faces being introduced to the team including flanker Will Connors who was man-of-the-match against Italy and Hugo Keenan who impressed against the Azzurri and was harshly disallowed a penalty try in Paris in a game where luck was nowhere to be found; not for the first time in the City of Love. Add to the fact that Dan Leavy has yet to return to the fold as a result of injury suffered last year and players such as James Lowe who is now eligible to play under the three residency rule and suddenly Ireland have a bit more strength and depth with players who are versatile in a number of positions, something which is crucial in the modern game. More will be needed however to match the top teams in this World Cup cycle.
Not only did Farrell introduce several debutants in the campaign but he also appeared to be encouraging the team to play with a bit more freedom compared to his predecessor Joe Schmidt. Ireland looked slightly more dangerous going forward with line breaks from the likes of Jacob Stockdale and offloads became part of their game. Attack coach Mike Catt will take credit for this as Ian McKinley who worked under him with Italy described the ex-England international as a coach who provides players with a structure but gives them licence to play. This was unheard of under Schmidt who was renowned for his attention to detail but was often criticised for being too narrow and predictable. However, at times it was difficult to see this replicated for the full 80 minutes and there was still a sense of getting to know what system they were trying to implement at both ends of the pitch.
One player that did not leave with much credit however was Jacob Stockdale in what has been a nightmare start to the season for him. Although he has looked as menacing as ever in attack, it was his defensive frailties which left him down and as things stand he appears to be more comfortable and protected on the wing rather than at full-back. As talented as he is, the Ulster man was exposed on Saturday night and needs to improve sooner rather than later if he wants to keep his place within the starting fifteen. With Jordan Lamour currently injured, a safe pair of hands á la Rob Kearney is needed with Munster’s Andrew Conway being the front runner for the shirt. The 28-year-old has gotten better with age and deserves an opportunity to nail down a permanent starting berth and could be a key player going forward for Ireland if given the opportunity. His counter-attacking skills and air superiority more than makes a case for his inclusion.
There has been uproar about the actions of captain Johnny Sexton during the Ireland v France game which is unsurprising. What also isn’t surprising is seeing a player who wears his heart on his sleeve which sometimes lands him in hot water but with the right intentions. What he did is unacceptable and gives off very negative body language to his replacement Ross Byrne and the rest of his teammates. He was in a team, however, which lacked leadership none more so when no one decided to argue with the captain’s decision to go for the corner instead of the posts with a relatively straight forward kick which would have put Ireland just a point behind at the break.
Ultimately Andy Farrell will judged by what happens at the World Cup in France in 2023. Too often have we seen Irish teams peak too early only to fail when it matters most. Yes, the Six Nations is an important tournament that Ireland needs to do well in especially from a financial perspective with the year that’s in it, but ultimately, teams peak for the World Cup. It is arguably more important that Ireland reach a first semi-final at the World Cup tournament than win a couple of Six Nations titles in-between and if it means a stuttering couple of seasons before the team is ready to tackle the sport’s showpiece, then so be it.
If Farrell can re-discover the identity of this team then it will be a chance for the public to reconnect with the side after a turbulent two years. With everything going on in the world at present, now more than ever we need Irish rugby to be a “Team of Us”.