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Ireland's new start is exciting, says Stockdale, but proof will be in Six Nations pudding


Johnny Sexton with new Ireland coach Andy Farrell

Johnny Sexton with new Ireland coach Andy Farrell

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Big role: Johnny Sexton during his captain’s run at the Aviva yesterday

Big role: Johnny Sexton during his captain’s run at the Aviva yesterday

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Johnny Sexton with new Ireland coach Andy Farrell

While Ireland would like to talk about anything but the World Cup, one lingering effect of those memorable seven weeks in Japan appears to be the travelling press corps.

Tokyo to Abottstown is quite the trek for a pre-match press conference, but there were a sizeable number who had come the great distance for new captain Johnny Sexton's briefing.

How, one asked, would you rate your side on a scale of one to 100.

"Can I tell you on Saturday?" came the reply from Rory Best's successor, seeking to delay his answer until the conclusion of Ireland's Six Nations opener against Scotland in Dublin this evening (4.45pm kick-off).

A fitting response given that, as of this morning, Ireland are more of an unknown quantity than any time in recent years.

While the side have played through the retirements of such figures as Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, no change can be considered so seismic as the one that sees Joe Schmidt step aside to be replaced by his former assistant Andy Farrell.

March 2013 and an abject defeat in Rome was the last time the decorated Kiwi was not at the helm for Ireland in this Championship - in the years since, the basic principles to which the side would aim to adhere to have been well-flagged. Over the course of winning a Grand Slam and two further titles, Schmidt's side have been organised, ruthlessly efficient and dependent on their coach's highly detailed launch plays off set-piece.

Farrell's Ireland? As his new skipper suggests, we'll know a lot more tonight and in the coming months.

A number two under not only Schmidt but Warren Gatland and Stuart Lancaster too, Farrell will bring composite knowledge as well as an already evident desire to put his own stamp on things.

"I think the beauty of Andy working under Joe for as long as he did, is that he has taken a lot of the good stuff with him," elaborated Sexton, who was viewed as Schmidt's on-pitch emissary for both Ireland and Leinster before that.

"As he said himself, he would be a fool not to because the success that Joe Schmidt had in Irish rugby was incredible.

"Andy and (new attack coach) Mike Catt have used their brains to add their own bits into (the system that was in place). It's gone well so far."

Given how it all ended, with that non-event of a World Cup quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks, Sexton is right to remind us that Schmidt heralded what was Irish rugby's most successful era. The back-to-back titles of 2014 and 2015 were beyond the imagination of those who had grown up with Irish rugby in the 1980s and '90s, while generations upon generations went without witnessing feats like beating the All Blacks or a win in South Africa. Throw in a Grand Slam won in Twickenham during the high watermark of 2018 and the good far outweighed a pair of doomed World Cup tilts.

Still, with the exception of the similarly departed Gatland and Wales, there are few recent examples at this level of continued success with longevity, and there remains a sense that, especially in the wake of such exacting standards, there is value to be found in a change of voice.

By naming his side on a Tuesday, Farrell has already provided one early departure from the recent norm, avoiding the "paralysis by analysis", a marked difference from a predecessor who famously kept his cards close to his chest. And while there were plenty looking for more drastic change, the presence of two British and Irish Lions on the bench shows a willingness for further shake-up.

"Faz has come in and brought a lot (more) new approaches than Joe would have," reflected Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale.

"And I think the guys have responded really well to them and are really enjoying them, which, as a player, is obviously what you want.

"When you come in and things are different and things are new, you feel like everything is kind of starting from scratch again, which is exciting."

With Catt added to the ticket, as well as new training facilities at the National Sport campus not far from their Carton House base, the vibe is certainly altered beyond the presence of Farrell at the top table.

The likes of Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan have taken on a greater role when it comes to supplementing more established leaders like Sexton, while fresh faces like Caelan Doris and Ronan Kelleher, set to win their first caps today, are far from the only members of the wider squad lacking experience of the set-up.

Such change to the environment have Ireland, in contrast to their opponents, who lost playmaker Finn Russell for disciplinary reasons last week, seemingly ready to make a clean break from the World Cup.

"Our training has definitely changed a wee bit," added Stockdale. "Like from this week I've noticed a lot more skills focus, like we're integrating skills into each of our gym sessions which is really exciting and quite similar to what we do at Ulster, so it's kind of nice to get that synergy there. The atmosphere in camp this week has been really good. And I think that's partially down to what Faz has brought. He obviously wants to create a really inclusive environment.

"Everyone has really bought into it and we're just excited to get moving forward."

Moving forward, the man himself said this week he wants to mould a side that the Irish public will enjoy watching, one that seems sure to feature more attacking spontaneity. Intriguing times ahead, but these early weeks were never meant to be the hard part.

As Sexton alludes, the real challenges start now.

Belfast Telegraph