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Six Nations: Farrell sets out to find the perfect balance of old and new


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Big plan: Andy Farrell is trying to freshen things up while retaining experience

Big plan: Andy Farrell is trying to freshen things up while retaining experience

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Big plan: Andy Farrell is trying to freshen things up while retaining experience

A new broom, but the baby remains in the absence of the bathwater.

Having taken over from Joe Schmidt following the World Cup, the Kiwi's former defensive assistant Andy Farrell named his first ever Ireland team yesterday that will start the Six Nations against Scotland, with a handful of indications that continuity does not equate to continuation.

Firstly, the timing and location of the revealing alone - in Portugal and on a Tuesday.

Schmidt's distaste for his team being known ahead of time is now the subject of record thanks to his recently published autobiography, but it lurked never far from the surface throughout his tenure, memorably bemoaning one journalist revealing his selection in advance as recently as the final round of last season's Six Nations.

The contrast to Farrell in the first instance is obviously stark, the Englishman adopting a trait more readily associated with Warren Gatland by making the 23 names public long before competition regulations dictate that he must.

Even in the wake of Schmidt's hyper-successful tenure, there is an assumption that a little relaxation in the face of such stresses would be no bad thing, and Farrell has quickly given himself one less thing to worry about.

New faces have been included too, reflective of a new cycle even if it is not one that looks set to run all the way through to 2023 in France.

Ireland's failure out in Japan had led to some calls for a longer-term approach with a view to finally breaking that semi-final glass ceiling in four years' time.

South Africa's victory in November, though - when Rassie Erasmus assumed control of a poor side only 18 months out from the tournament - shows the folly in such thought, while the Six Nations has always been too important, both historically and financially, to be viewed as some 48-month preparation for the global gathering every fourth autumn.

The new coach's selection of captain to follow on from the since-retired Rory Best had already hinted that he was of a similar mind.

At 34-years-old, Johnny Sexton is a man for the here and now, not the next World Cup, but remains a more obvious choice for 2020 than James Ryan, who surely will have taken over by then.

As such, when the team to face a Finn Russell-free Scotland in Dublin was named from Quinta do Lago yesterday, it was different without being drastically altered.

In all, 10 of the men beaten by the All Blacks remain in situ. Gone are Best, Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw and Peter O'Mahony, the latter pair retained among the substitutes. In their place come Rob Herring, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Bundee Aki and Caelan Doris.

Of the new faces, only Leinster's 21-year-old Doris wasn't with Ireland in Tokyo on the fateful evening when New Zealand ruthlessly ensured the Schmidt era would end in such ill-fitting fashion but the changes still feel like a measured infusion of fresh blood.

Herring has never before featured in the Championship, now benefiting fully from the extra game time at Ulster resulting from Best's retirement, while his deputy at hooker will be the uncapped Ronan Kelleher, who impressed so mightily at the RDS during the World Cup and through to his injury at the start of December.

The lack of opportunities afforded to Conway despite his form in Japan was one criticism of the previous regime, while Larmour has had the look of a man maturing into a far superior player than the version we saw when he last pulled on a green jersey.

Still, the change that would have made the biggest ripple was one left unmade.

John Cooney's form for Ulster over the past two-and-a-half seasons - and, more specifically, since he was left out of the World Cup squad - has been unmatched, undoubtedly the best performing nine on the island of Ireland even if Conor Murray has been better recently than the popular narrative would have you believe.

Try-scoring, game management, a sense of occasion and goal-kicking, Cooney has ticked every box for Dan McFarland's men this season, even if the latter is of minimal value to an international side whose captain would likely require the tee wrestled from his grip.

His match-winning heroics, his late blooming and the desire for change after a dismal World Cup have all contributed to a groundswell of support for the Gonzaga product to get the nod against the country of his father's birth this weekend.

Even with all that in his favour, international teams are not picked solely on the most deserving, and certainly not on popular sentiment.

By last weekend, the mood music was clear, and in the end it was no surprise to see Murray retained in the spot he has held unopposed since 2011.

The 30-year-old remains the pre-eminent Irish scrum-half of his generation, touring twice with the Lions - not insignificantly alongside Farrell - at a time when no Irish scrum-half had donned the red jersey since Colin Patterson in 1980.

While he hasn't been the same player as the one in the conversation alongside Aaron Smith as the best in the world at his position not so long ago, he is still a quality option and one who must surely now be aware he is under more tangible pressure than at any other point of his 83-cap Test career.

On a day when Ireland will go with an uncapped loose-forward at the base of their scrum, continuity between the half-backs becomes key, and no nine and 10 have ever been more familiar with each other in green jerseys than Sexton and Murray.

While this is not a team that can be claimed is picked solely on form - indeed, if it was then not just Cooney, but his Ulster colleagues Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison would also have reason to feel aggrieved - it is too soon to say that it is simply more of the same from the dispiriting end days out in Japan.

Whether a more happy medium has been achieved between old and new will be evident come the hour mark against the Scots on Saturday evening.

If provincial form is not enough - European Player of the Year nominee-level form no less - than a genuine opportunity from the bench is a necessity.

Too often Cooney, and any other reserve half-back, has been left kicking his heels until games were gone. His introduction at the Aviva must come with a chance to impact the game, not just as some token gesture to using the full 23.

Having already stomached one disappointment, it remains the least his displays warrant.

Ireland team to play Scotland: J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, T Furlong; J Ryan, I Henderson; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, C Doris.

Replacements: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, A Porter, D Toner, P O'Mahony, J Cooney, R Byrne, R Henshaw.

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