After a first year filled with headaches, both logistical and sporting, Andy Farrell now confronts his second Six Nations campaign as head coach, having today named his 36-man squad for the 2021 competition.
The headline issues are the unavailability of Jacob Stockdale through injury and the selection of the uncapped Craig Casey and Tom O’Toole, the former being included in place of scrum-half rivals John Cooney and Luke McGrath.
RTÉ rugby analyst Jonny Holland says the selection doesn’t contain too many surprises – except perhaps for the inclusion of 30-year-old Rhys Ruddock, out in the cold at international level throughout 2020.
And if there’s one player entitled to feel aggrieved at the squad announcement today, Holland feels it’s Connacht fly-half Jack Carty, omitted after the selectors plumped for Billy Burns and Ross Byrne as Johnny Sexton’s back-up.
“It’s not daring but I don’t know if it’s conservative either,” Holland tells RTÉ Sport. “Ronan Kelleher is there, Tom O’Toole is selected. Outside of that? You’ve got a very young back-row there. I don’t know what else you’re supposed to pick there.
“Can you go younger? Gavin Coombes would have been more daring. Maybe people will focus in on that one.
“Rhys Ruddock has come back in after being out for so long. Why is that? But I think he gives them a physical edge that other players don’t always bring. And he’s battle hardened, we’ve seen that any time he comes up against South Africa, for example.
“Your two back-up out-halves are young enough. It’s not an old midfield and a potentially young back three. I’m not sure how much more daring you can be. I wouldn’t have expected to see much else.
“There’s a couple of talking points but I think most of them are based on provincial fans wanting their guy in or not. I don’t think there’s too many surprise exclusions or inclusions.”
Donal Lenihan gives his take on the Ireland squad named by Andy Farrell for the upcoming Six Nations campaign including the selection of Munster’s Craig Casey
Full squad: https://t.co/a9xXXxC6JC #rterugby #6Nations pic.twitter.com/AZZ5qpACDW
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Carty, the breakout player of the otherwise wretched 2019 season, returned to prominence with a bravura, record-breaking display in Connacht’s victory over Leinster in the RDS on the first weekend of January. Nonetheless, he finds himself outside the international tent this time around.
“One guy who might feel aggrieved is Jack Carty. Because – not to criticise the guy – I don’t know how much Ross Byrne has come on since he’s arrived on the scene.
“He (Byrne) might have been playing better before, although he did have a positive impact on the game the last day (Munster).
“But I don’t think Jack Carty will be too happy with this selection. Carty and (John) Cooney could toss it up between themselves as to who should be the most aggrieved. I don’t know if anyone else should be.”
The 21-year-old Casey’s selection as one of three scrum halves has captured plenty of attention, particularly as it came at the expense of Cooney, one of Ireland’s most in-form players this time last year.
The Limerick-born Casey was part of the Ireland U-20 squad which won the Grand Slam in 2019 and his profile has grown at Munster since making his senior debut in April ’19.
“The thing I feel with Craig Casey is that if you’re going to come in as number three, you don’t want your number three to be just filling a space,” says Holland.
“Whereas Craig can come in and maybe not play and still have a positive camp, the other guys (Cooney and McGrath) can’t come in and not play and have a positive camp.
“Obviously the guy (Casey) will want to play. But Conor Murray and Jamison Gibson-Park are there. They bring varying styles, Murray is very controlled, he’s got a kicking game – which gets unfair criticism – and then you have Gibson-Park who is so good around the ruck and brings a lot of speed to it. You have different dynamics there and you’re developing a younger player.
“It’s funny that the public opinion is that we don’t develop young fellas and then we develop a young fella and want John Cooney back in. In saying that, I feel for John Cooney not getting in and we saw how well Luke McGrath played at the weekend.”
Ireland enter the 2021 campaign having finished third in the table two years running. 2020 was generally regarded as a so-so effort from Ireland, IRFU high performance director David Nucifora characterising it as “an average return for us.”
With the coaching team having had a year to bed down, Holland expects that 2021 will see an improvement from Ireland and, while he stresses that performance is the most important thing at this stage in the team’s cycle, he nonetheless says that another finish outside the top two will probably be received negatively.
“I’d fear that Ireland will end up third. If France go well and England do what they always do, Ireland will battle Wales for third or else they might do very well and get second.
“The team is good enough to do the job obviously. I look at that squad and don’t know how much better it can get. Last year, they were maybe a bit disjointed with management change and as well as some new players coming in.
“It’ll be an improvement on last year. You don’t need to go and win it for it to be a massive success but I think you need to do it the right way and get a bit of flow about it.
“If you get beaten by a better team, I think you can take that. But if you get beaten by a team that’s not playing considerably well then it’s going to be a massive negative for Ireland.
“I think it’s going to be how they go about it and how they develop. Finishing in the top one or two will be positive.
“I do think if they come third, it’s going to be a negative, unless England, France or Wales play their socks off, but I don’t know if all three of them are going to hit the ground running on that.”