You mightn’t appreciate Irish strength in depth ‘til the World Cup

4 March 2018


MIKE Prendergast would have had some head on him this week. That sort of bould Limerick ‘I told you so’ head.

He’s been bigging up Chris Farrell to me for years, reeling off his plusses like a citation. What’s not to like, he’d say. A juicy passer. Nice soft hands. The nice hard edge.

He wasn’t wrong. Farrell against Wales last Saturday was above exceptional. The bit that drove Mike mad was the perplexed reaction from the margins: where did that performance come from? It’s like Chris has been waiting years to be an overnight success. If Jordan Larmour had come in and performed the way Farrell did in his Six Nations debut, there’d be a national holiday in Donnybrook!

In Ulster, people are indulging in a bit of what-happened-there? How did we let Farrell go to Grenoble in the first place? To be fair, sport is full of late bloomers. Farrell is quite different to, say, Stuart McCloskey, who is big, strong, with an offload. Farrell is one of those low maintenance characters, a fella who doesn’t feel the need to advertise his wares, even though he knows he can. We’ve all been with players who read about themselves that they have no left foot, and then go out and try to kick three passes with the left foot to prove a point. Chris Farrell is not that guy. He’s the opposite of that. I think the fact that he’s 6’4” and such a physical specimen, people presume he’s a bosh merchant.

He is far from a bosh merchant.

And of course, Mike’s mad too that Farrell’s Six Nations is over almost as quickly as it exploded into life on Saturday in Dublin. And yet, as I’ve said here time after time, the show moves on. Nowhere more so than in Camp Ireland. When everyone’s back fit, though, it’s actually going to be scary ahead of the 2019 World Cup, when we will all be going (high-pitched surprise voice)… ‘that fella didn’t make the squad for Japan?’

In the past, it was fairly obvious the final few slots could have gone to half a dozen different names of the same ilk. Not this time. There’s going to be some proper talent left at home.

I have no difficulty with Keith Earls in the centre for Scotland. With the beast from the east causing havoc with PRO14 fixtures, Garry Ringrose missed out on the chance to see action for Leinster against the Scarlets. Well, that would be the preferred route if Joe was going to consider pitching him in against Scotland’s in-form midfield next week.

Wrapping him in cotton wool and having him going zero to 60 for the Six Nations is not ideal. He’s well established in the Schmidt system, so ideally, you’d be looking at three or four games to get his consistency right back up there. He’s not getting that. But he’s a very good feel player. He got 55 minutes against the Southern Kings last week and he might find that after adrenaline gets him through the comeback outing, there’s a bit of a dip. There’s so much focus on the first game coming back, that he might need to blow out that dirty petrol, as my Kerry friends might say. If he got a good week’s training next week, and he’s 100% fit, he will manage. If he’s 90% fit, I wouldn’t pick him.

The Welsh win delivered the best display from Irish forwards in two seasons.

Cian Healy had a big game, Dan Leavy was immense, Rory Best very good, Porter too. Wales proved again what a danger they are with ball in hand. Joe’s tactics ensured Ireland limited the time and possession available to Warren Gatland’s side – and they still scored three tries with 31% possession, 25% territory and a tough afternoon off New Zealand referee Glen Jackson.

When people start talking about the Irish defensive width, I am not sure if they’re referring to its structure or its personnel. The key must be the system because personnel changes. But in any system, if the opposition get three passes off, the defence is going to be stretched.

Andy Farrell likes narrow spacings between his players which give certainty to them to come hard off the line. If you picture 20 metres between the defending Irish team and the Welsh attack, it only takes about two seconds for the defender to cover that distance and make contact. He has tight spacing so that the defender should be getting ball and man with the attacking receiver. But if there’s an offload or a bit of evasion skills, the picture obviously changes in the wide channels.

Do the maths across the pitch: a four-metre space between eight players is 32m of the pitch covered. But a typical pitch is 70m wide, so there’s almost another 40m with only four players to cover 10 metres each. I still like the Irish system, it’s one I believe in, and if Farrell is disappointed, it’s more likely with individuals within the system than the system itself. The system for me is robust. It’s going through a rocky period, for sure, but over a stretch of international tests, good analysis ensures that nothing stays the same every time.

They will stick with that system but don’t doubt for a moment that its inadequacies are burning the video sessions this week. Ireland are conceding too many tries, and Farrell – plus the players – should be beating themselves up about that, especially the Italy and Wales games. Six tries conceded whereas Farrell might have accepted two. And that’s might. Farrell can do nothing about a try off a rolling maul, but where some of the other tries are coming off is the area of genuine concern.

Anyone who was here last week will know I wasn’t surprised with the result of the Calcutta Cup match. Just as I won’t be surprised if they don’t back it up at the Aviva. Can we have any faith in the same Scotland that beat England turning up? Away from Murrayfield, their record is not good enough. There is little basis for confidence. If you can’t accuse them of lacking the mental capacity to back up the performance in the Calcutta Cup, you certainly have a right to question it.

The statistics don’t lie. Their last away win in the Six Nations was Italy in 2016. And before that in Italy two years earlier. Their last away win against the other 6N countries was in 2010, against us. They’ve only won six away games since it became six nations – and four were in Rome.

It doesn’t bode well.


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