Continuity key for Ireland as Andy Farrell’s side target Grand Slam defence
Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
With the World Cup heartache still very much fresh in the memory, Ireland will return to France to begin the defence of their Grand Slam title in familiar territory.
As starts to a Six Nations campaign go, they don't come much tougher than facing Les Bleus in their own backyard, and while the game will be played in Marseille rather than Paris due to works ahead of this summer's Olympics, the task facing Andy Farrell’s side is a significant one.
For a head coach that thrives under pressure and embraces whatever adversity comes his way, Farrell will relish the challenge of turning the page at Stade Velodrome, which is one of the coolest stadiums around.
The atmosphere is set to be red hot, as lest we forget, last year’s World Cup hosts are also still coming to terms with their own pain, having been knocked out at the same quarter-final stage as Ireland.
Talks of this being a new era have very much been shelved, as Farrell looks to build on the strong body of work that he and his side put together over the last four years.
It would be foolish to rip up the script and start again, so from that end, it was no surprise to see the Ireland boss opt for continuity when it came to selecting his Six Nations squad.
For the first time since 2009, a certain Johnny Sexton will not feature in the great tournament, as Ireland begin life after one of the finest players that the country has ever produced.
How Ireland cope without Sexton will go a long way to determining the success of their campaign, such was the former skipper’s enormous presence, both on and off the pitch.
The captaincy honour will fall to Peter O’Mahony, who is very much cut from the same cloth as Sexton.
A natural born leader, O’Mahony has long been a totemic figure in the Ireland squad, and one imagines that taking on the added responsibility of captain will not weigh too heavily on his shoulders.
At 34, the Munster back-row remains a vital player for both club and country, so when it came to it, it must have been a pretty straightforward decision for Farrell.
O’Mahony will be helped by a strong leadership group around him, as the likes of James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Caelan Doris and Iain Henderson look to lighten the load wherever possible.
In terms of replacing Sexton at out-half, Jack Crowley is set to be the chosen one to step into what are very big boots to fill.
However, everything we have seen from the Munster out-half in his young career to date suggests he is well-equipped to be able to handle the pressure.
And that’s the thing, replacing a legend of Irish rugby, and someone who was basically a player/coach, will not be easy, but Crowley must be given the time to put his own stamp on things.
The Cork man has spent the last couple of years sponging as much information as possible from Sexton, and at 24, he will now be tasked with carrying the mantle that comes with wearing one of the most iconic jerseys in Irish sport.
Considering Farrell does not entertain talk of four-year World Cup cycles, this will be a gradual rebuild, with the team that we can expect to see in the Six Nations unlikely to be vastly different to what we saw at the World Cup.
With Mack Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien set to miss the tournament due to injury, the right wing spot is very much up for grabs, with Calvin Nash, Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale and maybe even Garry Ringrose in the mix.
For all that Farrell decided not to include any uncapped players in his original 34-man squad, there is a plethora of players with fewer than 10 caps.
That means there is still scope for plenty of emerging stars to make their Six Nations mark, with Joe McCarthy’s reputation rapidly growing.
The powerful Leinster second-row has the potential to play a big role for Ireland over the next few weeks, with his abrasive nature perfectly suited to Test rugby.
How Ireland fare in their opener against France will set the tone for what is to come because if Farrell’s side emerge from Marseille with what would be a priceless victory, it would leave them in a good place ahead of welcoming Italy to Dublin the following week.
If we are to take it that Ireland will get a bonus point win against the Azzurri, they will enjoy a week off before another home clash with Wales followed by a tricky trip to Twickenham.
Another break week follows, with all roads leading to the Aviva Stadium on 16 March, when Ireland hope that their destiny remains in their own hands for the visit of Scotland.
For all that the memories of the World Cup pain are still raw, it’s just over a year since Dublin hosted a special Grand Slam party, when Ireland completed the clean sweep on home soil for the first time.
It will require something special for that to happen again this year, particularly with two tough away games in France and England, yet Ireland managed to win a ‘Slam’ in 2018 by doing it the hard way.
That’s the goal for Farrell’s side, who have set lofty standards for themselves, even allowing for the inevitable transition that will take place without Sexton steering the ship.
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