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Axed games rob us of the chance to see where Irish stand



Gutted: Ireland head coach Andy Farrell says his men were left devastated after another Six Nations fixture was cancelled

Gutted: Ireland head coach Andy Farrell says his men were left devastated after another Six Nations fixture was cancelled

�INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Gutted: Ireland head coach Andy Farrell says his men were left devastated after another Six Nations fixture was cancelled

Already it seems as if the next rugby season could prove to be just as gruelling as the last for Ireland's rugby stars after the continued threat of the coronavirus saw a second of their Guinness Six Nations fixtures postponed yesterday.

Having already been forced to call off the hosting of Italy that was scheduled for last weekend, yesterday brought the news that Saturday's trip to Paris and the Stade de France would also need rescheduled.

In preparation for the World Cup back in autumn, Ireland's Test panel that was headed for Japan was assembled as early as June, and the final game of the campaign, presuming the tour goes ahead, will not arrive until the middle of July with the second of two games planned against Australia.

While this 13-month slog is designed to be in once-every-four-years isolation, next season is now shaping up to be just as much of a challenge.

With a mandatory rest period to follow on from the summer tour, those undertaking the challenge of facing the Wallabies down under would have figured to return to provincial action only in October. As it stands, that could be just a week or two before the Six Nations is expected to resume.

Initial reports in France have suggested that Ireland's trip to Paris will take place on October 31, with the hosting of Italy presumably having to be fixed for prior to that date, with October 24 seeming the most likely.

With Australia, South Africa and Japan all set to come to Dublin in November, it could mean five consecutive Tests matches, with the provinces left to pick up the pieces of a massively disrupted autumn.

As it stands, that Halloween weekend is believed to be one of Guinness PRO14 action, but the two preceding it would be Champions Cup weekends.

The 2021 Six Nations would begin only three months after the 2020 edition concludes, bringing with it another five Tests, while the season concludes only when the British and Irish Lions play the final game of their tour to the world champions South Africa on August 7.

For those involved, the schedule will call for 13 top-level Tests in just 10 months.

Off the back of a World Cup year, when rest eventually comes in the summer of 2021, there's little doubt it will be well earned.

The chaos is not confined to the senior game. The Irish Under-20s are still chasing a Grand Slam having already secured a Triple Crown.

With fixtures at home to Italy and away to France themselves to factor in, running them in tandem with planned senior games in the autumn would presumably leave a significant chunk of the squads that started the campaign coverage next season.

In the Women's Championship - the first to postpone a fixture when Italy v Scotland was called off on February 23 - the European qualifying tournament for the 2021 World Cup had been slated for September of this year.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell described the mood of his side as one of "devastation" as they trooped off the training pitch yesterday to be met with the news that French minister for sport Roxana Maracineanu had confirmed the game should not go ahead.

Similar to the situation regarding Italy in the Aviva Stadium two weeks ago, once the government became involved, postponement became the only likely option.

While the squad stuck to their pre-planned schedule of an afternoon gym session, the news effectively brought the curtain down on their Championship in the least satisfying of manners.

A Six Nations that across the board already felt somewhat devoid of spark and below par in terms of quality ends, for now, in a whimper.

From a purely Irish perspective, the decision brings a premature close to the first block of fixtures of the Farrell era.

That the unfinished championship leaves us so unfulfilled goes beyond the uncertain destination of a title that remains in the grasp of both Ireland and France yet for which the bookies had made England clear favourites.

Coming back from Japan, the wealth of questions raised by yet another Irish quarter-final exit remain unanswered.

With the supposed five-game slate representing Farrell's first exposure to life as a head coach having taken over from Joe Schmidt, we know today far less than perhaps could would have been expected after the initial go around.

His three games - wins over Scotland, Wales and, most recently, the thumping by England - can be classed as good, bad and indifferent, and we know only a little more about his coaching ethos moving forward than we did back in those first days of February.

Yes, there is certainly an altered attacking shape and a greater willingness to play from deeper, but the side beaten so convincingly in Twickenham looked little different to the one that exited the World Cup in Tokyo under Joe Schmidt some four months prior.

With Rory Best retired and Rob Kearney seemingly discarded, personnel changes elsewhere have been minimal, with the cases of the young Leinster duo Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris hampered by injuries before and during the tournament respectively. 

With the Italy game always seeming ripe for a greater degree of experimentation, the likes of John Cooney, Dave Kilcoyne and Doris won't get the expected starts their cameos off the bench warranted, while we won't see either how Farrell's Ireland respond to the adversity of such a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Eddie Jones's men.

The postponements, while the only sensible call when assessing the wider picture, have, in a purely sporting context, robbed us of the chance to see how all these things and this team would progress over the final fortnight.

A Championship that began with such intrigue has, ultimately, offered only a handful of answers to date.

While attention will quickly switch back to the PRO14 and Heineken European Champions Cup - presuming neither competition is similarly forced onto ice as the outbreak spreads, no guarantee with Ulster themselves due in France on April 5 - there will hopefully be plenty of on field action to whet the appetite in the coming weeks and months.

But we now know for sure that it will be July at the earliest before we see the next stage of development for this Ireland side undergoing such transformation after seven years under Schmidt's highly successful stewardship.

That, more so than the seven-month delay in crowning a champion of the northern hemisphere, feels sure to be a frustrating wait.

- THE PRO14 has confirmed kick-off times for the league's final round of fixtures. Ulster will host Conference A leaders Leinster at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, May 30, with a 3pm kick-off.

Belfast Telegraph