Most will agree that Ireland didn’t give Joe Schmidt the send off he deserved. He recorded Ireland’s first 2 victories against the All Blacks in more than 100 years of rugby. For a number of reasons, they weren’t at the races at the World Cup and were undone by Schmidt’s countrymen in the quarter finals pretty convincingly. Despite all the successes in his tenure, it’s the fresh memory of the World Cup that makes the last 4 years feel like a failure.
Irish fans said thank you and, reluctantly, goodbye to their coach after Japan and his assistant coach stepped up. Andy Farrell, father of Owen, is now responsible for guiding Ireland to glory at France 2023.
First though, is this year’s Six Nations. He has Lions experience a-plenty, but the opener against Scotland in Dublin will be his first test as a head coach.
He’s already shown that he’s not afraid of making big decisions. Kearney wasn’t included in his winter training squad, nor has he been recalled to this squad. It’s a gutsy move, but understandable given the form of Jordan Larmour.
However, it’s not all big decisions. He’s kept Murray at scrum half, instead of European player of the year nominee, Cooney, who has been exceptional for Ulster. It will be very interesting to see the battle for that starting spot as the tournament progresses, especially because Gibson-Park (Leinster) will be waiting in the wings to pounce too.
Old-man Sexton – Farrell’s captain – starts, although it will be interesting to see how much of the tournament he plays; we all know about his long-term injury problems that prevents him playing more than 60 minutes on a regular basis. This is a big tournament for Ross Byrne and breakthrough brother of Freddie at Leinster, Billy Burns.
In the forwards, nothing much has changed – James Ryan, Josh Van Der Flier and Tadhg Furlong start against Scotland, and will undoubtedly play a big part of this whole tournament. At No8, Caelan Doris makes his debut.
For all of the men that have worn the 13 jersey before him, Gary Ringrose looks every bit as good. He is Ireland’s main attacking threat, the one player that you cannot leave alone for a single minute. With 10 tries in just 7 appearances for Leinster this season, his continued form – not to mention that of Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale – will see this team compete until the final day.
Ireland must travel to Twickenham and Paris this year and, whilst England are favourites, Ireland have a very good chance of taking the title. They must be consistent and disciplined to give themselves the best hope of recapturing their 2018 form.
This is a team that has the physicality; but do they have the attacking inventiveness to win tight games? At times, Ireland looked rather one-dimensional going forward under Schmidt, especially when they went behind, but maybe this is all about to change. In this post-World Cup year of change, it’s all to play for.