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Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ireland need new leaders like Billy Burns and Iain Henderson to stand tall against French swagger

Ruaidhri O'Connor


With no Sexton or Murray, Farrell will be looking to Hendy and Burns

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All change: Billy Burns (left) is in for Johnny Sexton and the Irish skipper’s other half in rugby terms

All change: Billy Burns (left) is in for Johnny Sexton and the Irish skipper’s other half in rugby terms

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Conor Murray is also absent

Conor Murray is also absent

�INPHO/James Crombie

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All change: Billy Burns (left) is in for Johnny Sexton and the Irish skipper’s other half in rugby terms

The winds of change normally blow slowly in Irish rugby and that's why it was so jarring to see Andy Farrell name a team without either Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton in it yesterday.

The last time Ireland played a Six Nations game without either of their leading men was the 2011 defeat to Wales in Cardiff when Eoin Reddan and Ronan O'Gara wore the No.9 and 10 shirts.

Tomorrow, Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns are charged with managing the game and it won't just be the winds of change blowing.

Weathermen are forecasting strong winds and rain for tomorrow afternoon, a blend that will make life difficult for the half-backs in particular.

Whereas Luke McGrath and John Cooney are noted game-managers, neither is in the squad so it's Kiwi Gibson-Park and his deputy Craig Casey who are tasked with playing at scrum-half. Both are known for their tempo more than their control.

At No.10, Burns has a reputation for playing a running game and at Ulster he defers much of the tactical stuff to Cooney. On the bench, Ross Byrne is probably the more strategi­cally-minded of Ireland's remaining No.10s but it is the Bath-born man who is tasked with running the game.

The causes for concern don't stop at half-back.

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Like Sexton, James Ryan has not come through the return to play pro­tocols after his head injury and thus the captain and vice-captain are out.

Peter O'Mahony, another former skip­per, is banned after his red card last week while Caelan Doris is another guaranteed starter who has been sidelined with head issues.

Ulster's Iain Henderson leads the team on his 60th cap.

A provincial captain, a Lion and a player capable of mixing it in the best company, he's unlikely to be over-awed by the occa­sion.

Still, not since the 2015 World Cup quarter-final has so much of the heart of the Irish team been ripped out in one go.

Back then, Ireland were unable to rise to the occasion; with the loss of Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien, Jared Payne, O'Mahony and Sexton too much to bear.

Farrell used the Autumn Nations Cup to blood new players and started without his first-choice half-backs in Twickenham.

He's hoping that experience stands to a team that did a lot well in defeat last weekend.

"That's why we're excited about it," he said.

"It's an opportunity for this group, they get to continue the fan­tastic form that they showed in the first game against Wales. Some of them were absolutely outstanding. Some other guys get a chance to get back on the horse and get back up to that standard.

"So, they're raring to go, every sin­gle one of them that's been selected."

Farrell conceded that the team lost their way during the third quarter in Cardiff, something of a trend in recent times.

Poor decisions, ill-discipline and sloppy execution allowed Wales into the game, but then the cavalry came off the bench and put themselves in a position to win the game until Burns kicked the ball dead.

The fact that Keith Earls, Sexton, Murray, O'Mahony, Ryan and Cian Healy were watching from the stand didn't seem to bother those down on the pitch.

And Farrell's mission is to tap into their belief levels if he wants to retain his unbeaten record at the Aviva Sta­dium.

"It is something we're seeing develop on a daily basis in camp. There's a few new faces in the squad over the last year, but that's what it's for, so we can build for the future and for the here and now," he said.

"It was very pleasing. A lot went against us last week, it wasn't all brilliant but there was a lot of good things that we stepped forward with within our game.

"If we can manage all parts of the game a little bit better, three-quar­ters of the game... the third quarter wasn't managed well enough regard­ing our ill-discipline, decision-mak­ing etc and that allowed them access back into the game. But we were excellent in certain parts."

The opposition will have a big part to play.

Sure, Ireland won't make life as easy for Les Bleus as they had it in Rome last weekend but Fabien Galthie's side waltz into Dublin with a swagger not seen from a French team in some time.

They've earned the right to be con­fident.

Up front, they have one of the finest, most impactful forward packs in the game.

Their back-row is nicely bal­anced and high quality, while their half-backs may be young but they've a lot of top-flight experience.

Antoine Dupont is probably the best player in the world right now and it helps that he's operating behind an efficient pack and with talented backs.

Gael Fickou is a defensive leader who can also play, while the back three are all good attacking players with the class of Teddy Thomas in reserve.

Pound for pound, they are the better team.

For all that they did a lot well and showed real spirit last weekend, Ire­land's decision-making is a concern.

Healy and Earls, their two most experienced players, are looking like they're past their best, while hooker Rob Herring has yet to shine at this level.

Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne were outstanding last week, while Rhys Ruddock is in excellent form and has a point to prove. Bringing Tadhg Furlong, Ronan Kelleher and Ultan Dillane off the bench means there shouldn't be much of a physi­cal disparity.

Ireland's centres are good enough to beat anyone, Hugo Keenan is rock solid at full-back but there are ques­tion marks over both wingers. Earls needs a big game, James Lowe just needs to show he has learned from last week's errors.

At home, Ireland will back them­selves to beat any opposition but yesterday's team announcement lengthened the odds against them at the bookies. It's been a while since they were five-point outsiders at the Aviva Stadium.

"You've got to control the game," Farrell said, referencing France's tactical nous, defensive strength and determination to play in the right zones.

In order to find that control, the new half-backs will have to have the game of their lives.

For so long, Ireland had stabilisers in the form of Murray and Sexton but they're gone. It might get a bit wob­bly.

IRELAND'S 14 MATCHES WITHOUT MURRAY AND SEXTON SINCE 2011

Autumn Test v Georgia, 2014 (W 49-7): Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan

RWC warm-up v Wales, 2015 (W 35-21): Eoin Reddan and Paddy Jackson

RWC warm-up v Scotland, 2015 (W 28-22): Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan

RWC pool v Romania 2015 (W 44-10): Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan

Autumn Test v Canada 2016 (W 52-21): Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson

Summer tour v USA 2017 (W 55-19): Kieran Marmion and Joey Carbery

Summer tour v Japan 2017 (W 50-22): Luke McGrath and Paddy Jackson

Summer tour v Japan 2017 (W35-13): Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson

Autumn Test v Fiji 2017 (W 23-20): Kieran Marmion and Joey Carbery

Autumn Test v Italy 2018 (W 54-7): Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery

Autumn Test v USA 2018 (W 57-14): John Cooney and Joey Carbery

RWC warm-up v Italy 2019 (W 29-10): Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery

RWC warm-up v Wales 2019 (W 22-17): Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty

Autumn Nations Cup v England 2020 (L 18-7): Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne

Belfast Telegraph


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