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Ireland will not move on until Farrell rings changes


Still waiting: An Ireland start for John Cooney is long overdue but so far Andy Farrell has resisted the calls

Still waiting: An Ireland start for John Cooney is long overdue but so far Andy Farrell has resisted the calls

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Andy Farrell

Andy Farrell

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Still waiting: An Ireland start for John Cooney is long overdue but so far Andy Farrell has resisted the calls

We have reached a point in this Irish team's development where the captain seems more upset by criticism from a former team-mate than losing heavily at Twickenham.

Of course, you could argue that the team stopped developing 16 months ago and has been on a downward trajectory ever since England arrived in Dublin to knock them off their perch.

They're still hitting branches on the way down but, despite the repeated blows, the team still don't appear to have come to terms with their new found status as an inconsistent side incapable of competing with the world's most powerful teams.

Twickenham confirmed a worrying trend of heavy defeats to physically superior opposition.

The scar tissue is building up at this stage, but the public utterances from Johnny Sexton last week suggested that the senior men in the team are focused on waging a war against the public perception of the team rather than on their own ailing performances.

In the immediate aftermath of England's comprehensive win, he said it wasn't a particular disappointment. When Ronan O'Gara's considered thoughts on his captaincy were put to him a week later, he issued a spiky riposte.

O'Gara is entitled to his opinion. Sexton wants to turn his back on the audience, but that suggests the inner sanctum is a more forgiving place than the public domain.

Given Ireland's performances in their biggest games since they were crowned team of the year in 2018, that's an unhealthy place to be.

It was never going to be an easy first campaign for Andy Farrell. Taking over in a post-World Cup season is a strange thing to do and the former assistant is the first Ireland coach to do so since Murray Kidd in 1995.

He opted to change the environment and tweak the tactics in the hope of breathing life into a struggling group of players and, while they beat Scotland and Wales, they ran aground when they stepped up in class and were out-thought and out-fought.

England may have stumbled against France and struggled against the Scots, but they've returned to form against Ireland and Wales. They are the benchmark.

For four of Joe Schmidt's seven seasons in charge, Ireland were well able to get to that level.

Partly that was because they were the smartest team around; with half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton way ahead of their rivals in speed of thought and execution while playing behind a forward pack whose technique was able to trump whatever size differential they were giving up to their rivals.

Not that Ireland are a small team. In terms of size and weight, Farrell's team don't give up much to any opposition. They do, however, appear to be operating at a power deficit to England, South Africa and New Zealand.

Ireland, of course, punch above their weight in the international game and the three aforementioned teams are the big beasts. When they are maximising their resources, it is difficult for anyone to stay with them except the French who became almost irrelevant in the last decade but who are beginning to look like a force again despite yesterday's meltdown at Murrayfield..

With a smart coaching team and a large contingent of young, hungry and supremely talented players the French are looking like themselves again. The Grand Slam dream is gone, but they will still look back on this campaign as one of progress towards their ultimate goal.

They are growing from a low base. A year ago, they rolled over in Dublin on one of those false dawns that appeared so frequently in Schmidt's final season.

In October 2023, the Stade de France will play host to the World Cup final. Fabien Galthié is determined to have his young team ready to get there and a host of stalwarts have been jettisoned along the way.

Farrell's tenure will ultimately be defined by what happens at that tournament. He does not have two U-20 World Cup winning teams to draw from, nor does he have 14 professional teams playing in the most competitive league in the world at his disposal.

Still, he has been conservative in his selection choices; loyal to the stars who have delivered success for Ireland in the past.

Italy would have offered him a chance to blood some new faces, but COVID-19 denied him that chance.

Throwing a few young guns in against Italy is the easy option. Pitching them in away to France, if the fixture goes ahead, is another kettle of fish.

Twickenham has given Farrell a licence to select at will. Having watched the same players fail in the same way as they did so often in 2019, surely he has realised that picking them again and again will just reap the same results.

Cian Healy's injury will necessitate change in the front-row, while Ronan Kelleher is primed to add dynamism and size at hooker and Iain Henderson should return to the second-row where Ultan Dillane and Ryan Baird are dynamic options against Devin Toner's set-piece assurance.

The back-row remains in need of surgery. Caelan Doris is expected to start, with CJ Stander likely to move to the blindside to accommodate him. Peter O'Mahony remains an enigmatic figure, while Josh van der Flier was once again physically outmatched in Twickenham.

It seems unlikely Farrell will turn to Max Deegan, Jack O'Donoghue or Will Connors at this stage, but they all look capable of performing.

At half-back, the established duo of Murray and Sexton had their latest off day against England. Class may be permanent and they were operating behind a thoroughly beaten pack, but there are only so many poor days any reputation can endure.

The skipper may be safe, but his partner must surely be vulnerable at this stage; particularly if Sexton is struggling to kick the ball. John Cooney deserved a shot two months ago and nothing has changed.

Outside them, them there is not enough creativity to support a struggling Sexton in the absence of Garry Ringrose but with Will Addison's fitness issues, Joey Carbery out for the season and Simon Zebo out of the picture there is no natural second-playmaker to take over.

Stuart McCloskey is another who has enjoyed a brilliant season at provincial level and could add something different to the team, but Farrell looks set on his established pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki.

In the back three, Jacob Stockdale looks vulnerable after another horror-show at Twickenham. A period on the sidelines may be just what the Ulster winger needs.

After Paris, Ireland's next fixture is against Australia in July and it's expected Farrell will use that tour to blood some new faces.

Why wait? The Championship is still there to be won, but the same old won't suffice against the best teams.

If Ireland are to start developing again they need fresh voices and new faces to get them moving in the right direction again.

Belfast Telegraph