Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2020

France v Ireland: Preview

20:05, 31st OCTOBER 2020, STADE DE FRANCE, PARIS

The prevalent mood is that Ireland have not played well enough to be in the running for this year’s Six Nations Championship. Perhaps the disjointed season is to blame.

True, it is very difficult to view this season through a prism of normalcy but the lingering negativity around the team has been bloated by the abysmal opening 40 minutes in Twickenham in March followed by the abrupt halt to all sport.

Seven months passed and the negative memory of Twickenham remained, without any of the positives from the victory over Wales two weeks previously. And, due to recency bias and the way England have strangled Ireland over the last 18 months, the pessimism is easy to countenance.

Ireland were comprehensively beaten in London that day but their undoing came largely from an inability to cover the backfield to the short kick and the all-round magnificence of Maro Itoje.

England themselves had gone to Paris on the crest of a successful World Cup – admittedly replete with a harsh lesson from South Africa in the final – but found themselves ambushed and embarrassed by a highly motivated French side.

If we consider Ireland’s performances to date, there was a nervous victory over Scotland, an improved if-not resounding one over Wales and before the enforced break, the comprehensive defeat in Twickenham.

Last weekend saw the resumption of the 2020 tournament and it should come as little surprise that the game was speckled with rust. The final score of 50-17 was probably a fair reflection as Italy battled gamely – a patronising but fair accolade for a team that offers very little to this tournament currently – and, though Ireland conceded late, it is unlikely to have any baring on the tournament’s outcome.

An Irish victory with a bonus point will guarantee Six Nations success for Andy Farrell in his first season in charge. This is extraordinarily unlikely, given that Ireland have put four tries past France in Paris just once.

This happened in France’s 43-31 victory in the 2006 Championship. Some recent articles have described this as a swashbuckling Ireland performance and this is true to an extent, However, if the swashbuckler was Ireland he stabbed himself in the face with his own sword about four times in the first half alone, whereupon France opened up a 40 point lead.

Ireland charged home hard with those four second-half tries but any possible allusion to Ireland coming close to stealing victory that day is revisionist history at its finest. It was an engrossing game but it was not a back and forth affair or one where victory was ever truly in Ireland’s grasp.

This is already too much reference to a match with little current relevance but it does emphasise the rarity of Ireland producing an offensive explosion away to France.

Even though it was a friendly, France looked highly impressive last weekend against Wales. After falling behind by 10 points early in the game, France proceeded to out score their visitors by 38 points to 11. They mixed their attack under the unflappable Antoine Dupont, and the breakneck running lines of Gregory Aldritt, captain Charles Ollivon and the irrepressible, Viremi Vakatawa, provided a glimpse into a potentially terrifying future for France’s Six Nations opponents.

Dupont may be the best player in the world right now, possessed of the skill common to the greats in all sports – Lionel Messi, Luka Doncic, Cameron Smith – of almost always making the correct decision. This skill isn’t predicated so much on instinct alone but on the awareness of what options are available to them and the knowledge to choose the right one.

The manner in which the French players carried last weekend is something that is slowly being reintroduced to the Irish game as, to be fair, the harder the line run, the more likely the carrier will commit a handling error.

Ireland’s game plan and plentiful success over the six years of Joe Schmidt’s reign owed much to ball retention and, for the most part, risk averse football.

You can’t just flick a switch and expect to revert to an all-out attacking approach. Indeed, the last attempt at this resulted in a dire opening 40 minutes in Yokohama in last year’s World Cup quarter final against New Zealand.

Joe Schmidt had a game plan that worked up to a point and brought Ireland its most successful ever era in terms of winning percentage and silverware. Ireland, for want of a better expression, got figured out by England in February 2019. Thus, it was necessary to evolve or, perhaps more accurately, adapt the game plan.

For Andy Farrell, following Schmidt was hard enough and attempting to imprint his style, and that of his coaching team in this elongated, meandering season must have added to the difficulty.

Perhaps though, like the rest of us and with time on has hands, Farrell was able to dive down a YouTube rabbit hole back in April and learn just what happened in Paris in the 90s and 00s when a French back line was allowed express itself against Ireland.

France, particularly in the absence of Teddy Thomas, still don’t have a back three to rival Poitreanuad, Dominici and Clerc for sheer attacking verve but there is balance across the division and in Dupont and Vakatawa, the two best in their position in world rugby.

If Ireland are to go all-out attack to begin, just what exactly does this mean? Move the ball wide immediately when pinned in our “22”? Or run harder lines and look for offloads out of contact early and often?

The latter option seems more sensible and attempts to introduce this facet of the game were clearly on view last weekend. C.J. Stander, an undeserving lightning rod for ex-players and journalist alike when Ireland struggle, had some lovely touches last weekend and, indeed, Peter O Mahony’s (5:09) beautiful pass for Bundee Aki’s try shows clear progress in Ireland’s attack.

True, this score came when the outcome had long since been decided but Ireland’s players need to be be in a position to execute comfortably in real time in order to instinctively attempt these passes in high pressure situations.

Like Stander, Aki’s importance to this team, allied to his durability, is often overlooked or undermined but there is no question that he can cause trouble for Vakatawa in defence and the collisions between these two should be exhilarating.

There is, frankly, no real sense in Ireland shooting from the hip from minute one as, even if they are to score four tries, it can be achieved through a collective positive approach as opposed to Jameis Winston gunslingin’ , as that approach has its drawbacks too. Against quality teams like France the onus is on winning the match, while the potential bonus point is just that.

An empty Stade de France should benefit Ireland and certainly the absence of the irresistible crescendo from the crowd when France embark on their magical passages of interplay should preclude the Irish players from being overcome mentally as well as physically.

France are currently on the same points as England, 13, and have a slim advantage in points difference. Therefore, for the French to win the title, they will almost need to match England’s margin of victory in Rome. This is not going to happen unless Ireland endure an extraordinary capitulation and Italy make two year’s worth of development in the space of seven days.

As the Brits are indeed at it again, the Six Nations trophy will be in Paris and not Rome for the tournament’s finale. However, that appears to be the greatest inconvenience Eddie Jones side will face this weekend.

In all likelihood, France will approach this as another stepping stone towards the 2023 home World Cup and a chance for their first choice half-back pairing of Dupont and Romain Ntamack to solidify their burgeoning combination.

While we would all love tomorrow to produce the drama and grandstand finish of 2015’s Super Saturday, it’s hard to see how an improving but still only decent Irish side will achieve something their predecessors never could.

France will never be as professional as the rest of the top-tier nations and, frankly, they don’t need to be. They, along with the Pacific Island Nations, can exhilarate in ways that other nations can only imagine.

It is simply impossible to expect military discipline, the bedrock of successful rugby teams, to combine seamlessly with ad-lib brilliance, particularly when the latter can’t really be taught. France may, though, be on the cusp of discovering a devastating hybrid of the two thanks to the introduction of quality coaches including Shaun Edwards and Raphael Ibanez.

And, with Dupont, France may possess the key to marrying the pragmatic with the ingenious. Or to put it less pompously, a brilliant rugby mind who relieves Ntamack of the tactical pressure, allowing the young out-half to flourish.

Ireland have the weapons to hurt France but they are short of potent ball carriers in the front five, and, while the legacies of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are secured, questions still remain over their current form.

Ironically, in the absence of a crowd, tomorrow night may mark the return of the Stade de France to the fortress of old.

S.U.S Sport Prediction: France by 6

Tips: Antoine Dupont 1st try @ 14/1

Viremi Vakatawa anytime try @ 7/4

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2020

England v Ireland – Preview

The mood around Irish rugby remains suitably cagey. Only three weeks ago, it was pronounced that the post-World Cup malaise remained after Ireland stumbled their way to victory over Scotland.

Seven days later they produced their best performance since 2018 in defeating a spirited but under-strength Welsh side. All told, it would be fair to say that the mood heading into Sunday’s Six Nations encounter with England is hopeful rather than expectant.

To be fair to the English, their respective oppostion get incredibly excited each time an opportunity comes around to play them at anything. The ever-popular anyone but England bandwagon moves to southwest London for a contest that will have a significant bearing on the outcome of this year’s tournament.

The build-up to Sunday’s contest game has certainly not been short on sub-plots. The righteous rugby brigade are upset that Eddie Jones antics may be fueling the perceived vitriol amonst supporters, not for one moment considering that the wider world, and booze, may have an impact on the sometimes fraught atmospheres.

The more prominent story, notwithstanding how overplayed it may be, is the fact that father and son, and former tammates, Andy and Owen Farrell, will be in opposite dressing rooms come Sunday. It’s a totally unnatural scenario, though given the almost unparalleled competitiveness of both men, perhaps just further motivation to get one over for each man.

More worryingly, Andy Farrell, brought Bono into camp this week. You’d have to wonder what insight Bono could give the team in the build up to Twickenham? What can a rugby team, built on selflessness, glean from an egomaniac with a messiah complex? Although, who knows, perhaps they’ll think of Bono and his attempts to describe what ‘Irishness’ is as they barrel into contact with Maro Itoje.

Bono, saviour of mankind and Irish rugby.

While we all focused on Ireland’s World Cup hangover, England had to focus on a far more pronounced one. Being pummelled by New Zealand in the quarter final is one thing but not many expected Ireland to come out the right of that result including, by their body language, the Irish players.

England, meanwhile, having dislodged the reigning world champions with a brilliant performance had pundits – English ones mind you – assessing, not whether England would win the final, but more specifically by how much.

England, who on so many occasions down the years appeared to relish the role of bully, met their nemesis in the rugby version of Nelson Munz, South Africa.

Admittedly, England did lose Kyle Sinckler early, and their scrum got punished from thereon. Then, with victory almost certain, South Africa turned on the style with a wonderful team try from Makazole Mapimpi complemented by a beautiful individual effort by the world’s most entertaining player, Cheslin Kolbe.

So, in the space of just seven days England went quite literally from the top to an afterthought. This team has rarely occupied the middle ground under Eddie Jones. It’s either record breaking runs and Grand Slams or punishing defeats to the “scummy Irish” or that “little shit place” known as Wales.

We should remember, however, that while Ireland have enjoyed home comforts so far is this year’s tournament, this will be England’s first appearance of the season at Twickenham.

Of course, the last time either team set foot here, England subjected the Irish to an embarassing 80 minutes which in hindsight was a fairly decent reflection of where each team stood at the time. Six months down the road, however, and the game has changed somewhat.

While Ireland have regathered – Joe Schmidt should be credited with leaving them in pretty decent shape – England made their way into Paris under the usual cloud of Jones chutzpah, an attribute that is usually lauded in victory and derided in defeat.

England rarely brought whatever Jones was promising and, given that the French feed almost pathologically off emotion, Jones’s words seemed a misstep, even with foresight.

Like him or not, Jones is an intriguing character, almost the complete opposite of Andy Farrell in the way he approaches his dealings with the media. Maybe it’s a cultural thing – Farrell is a humble, no-nonsense Northener and Jones, well, he’s Australian.

Given the unique circumstances the Farrells find themselves in this week, the Irish head coach will be quietly delighted that Jones has once more drawn the attention to himself after his bizarre comments to an English reporter on Thursday.

Jones team selction will have raised just as many eyebrows. First, he has chosen to drop Lewis Ludlam and Willi Heinz following the hard-fought victory in Murrayfield. Perhaps Ben Youngs should never have been dropped in the first place, while Courtney Lawes comes back, presumably to give England further line out options on a day when Irish hooker, Rob Herring, will likely face the gratest challenge of his career to date.

In an unusual selection, Jones has selected out an out second centre, Jonathan Joseph, on the wing, in a move that is sure to baffle many. It was only this time last year that England pulled an out of position, Robbie Henshaw, all over the field so it seems strange that Jones would opt for a non-specialist in the back three.

What he does have in the squad, in addition to a six-two split on the bench, is loads of second rows. However, all the forwards in the world won’t help is any of the English outside backs go down.

England, it is clear, intend on overrunning Ireland through sheer physicality, this gameplan ably assisted by the return of Ireland’s nemesis, Manu Tuilagi.

England are extremely difficult to repel when their big bodies start pouring forward, particularly in Twickenham. However, they’ll need good primary possession to effect this plan and while Iain Henderson’s absence for personal reasons of a happy nature denies Ireland a ball carrier, it means the introduction of Ireland’s most reliable ball winner at the lineout, Devin Toner. Ultan Dillane’s presence on the banch should counter some of the English bulk in the final quarter.

Robbie Henshaw showed flashes of attacking brilliance against Wales before a head knock forced him off and in terms of centre combinations, his and Bundee Aki’s is comfortably the most developed. Aki and Tuilagi will clash, and everyone looks forward to it, but it will be moreinteresting to see if the Irish midfield can find any chinks in the channel between Farrell and George Ford, the latter of whom is coming under increased scrutiny of late from the English media.

If Ireland can quieten the crowd early, and this may require little more than gaining parity, you’d be confident that they can turn thr tables on England from a year ago and put Joseph and Elliott Daly in some uncomfortable defensive positions.

Andrew Conway is in the form of his life, Jordan Larmour the potential to unlock a defence at any time while you suspect Jacob Stockdale is one moment away from returning to the form of 2018.

Of course, all of this will be redunant if Ireland can’t take England on up front but C.J. Stander and Tadhg Furlong look to be back to their best, while the bench, including a highly motivated Caelan Doris, has more than enough dynamism to match England’s power game late on.

Win tomorrow and a Grand Slam that not one Irish person contemplated before the season began is a real possibility.

England are a diferent animal at home but still a meeker one without the Vunipolas. They do, however, have the greatest forward depth in world rugby so Ireland won’t view Tom Curry’s presence at number eight as a weakness, more an oddity of selection on Jones’ part.

Start strong, score at least three tries and weather the inevitable storm. These are the not so simple requirements for an Irish victory. Like Wilder in Las Vegas, Ireland to land the knockout blow late.

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 3

Tips – Ireland to win @ 12/5

Ireland to win and Andrew Conway to score a try @ 13/2

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Ireland v Wales, Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2020

Same as it ever was

One week down in the 2020 Six Nations and it’s easy to jump to conclusions: Ireland’s scar tissue from Japan remains, Italy show no signs of progress and a victory for anyone over England is as good as an Irish win.

We’ll look at the Ireland Wales contest in detail followed by previews for Round Two’s other fixtures: Scotland v England, and, France v Italy.

Ireland v Wales – 8th February 2:15pm, Aviva Stadium

Not many thought that Ireland would ultimately rely on a butchered try and a defiant goal-line stand to overcome Scotland in last week’s Six Nations opener.

Perhaps hubris raced past pragmatism, with public and pundits alike happy to overlook the latter stages of the World Cup, instead focusing on Ireland’s comprehensive victory in Yokohama on the tournament’s opening weekend.

Moreover, Scotland were missing their attacking dynamo, Finn Russell, and Ireland, under a new coaching ticket would be rejuveanted after a winter of relative discontent. Who knows what would have happened if Stuart Hogg hadn’t commited an error that would have under-12s coaches seething but a first game victory will be just fine for Andy Farrell.

Remember, Joe Schmidt’s first proper test – with apologies to Samoa – as Irish coach was a bit of an abomination, the home side losing 32-15 to Australia yet only eight days later, they almost made history against a record- breaking New Zealand side.

This is not to try and mirror the experience of a coach on debut but it’s probably a bit hasty to decry the new regime as turgidly stuck in the old ways. Just yet.

Farrell had relatively little time to change it up and it’s difficult to see where the spark is going to come from. Conor Murray kicked regularly and to little effect, and, while the execution can’t be laid at the feet of Farrell, the choice of tactic can.

It’s concerning that Ireland have already lost their attacking fulcrum, Garry Ringrose, to a hand injury that may yet jeopardise his particpication in the rest of this year’s tournament. Ringrose looked sharp in the few opportunities presented his way and he tends to really come to life as defences tire late on in a game.

Robbie Henshaw, while certainly an outstanding defender and a mainstay only eighteen months ago, just does not possess either the speed or nous to attack in the manner which Ireland apparently intend.

Having said that, Henshaw and his old Connacht teammate, Bundee Aki, always formed a formidable pairing and it could be iust the opportunity the Athlone man needs to rejuvenate a slightly stalled international career.

The key, as with last week, is to bring Ireland’s hugely talented back three into the game, particularly Jordan Larmour, who seems to be that one signature game away from elevating himself from outstanding talent to international star.

Flanking him, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway did little wrong last week – neither would have enjoyed Murray’s weapon of choice – but with Keith Earls back in the 23, there is little room for error.

There is a sense, largely misguided – not with the bookies mind – that Wales’ hammering of Italy and Ireland’s struggles in beating Scotland will likely lead only to an away victory this afternoon. Italy are, unfortunately, in a bit of a heap at the moment and Scotland, like Ireland as we well know, perform better as underdogs.

Also, perhaps more importantly, recency bias may be playing a hand in how the two sides are viewed coming into this year’s tournament. Warren Gatland, the most successful coach in the northern hemisphere in the last decade, left Welsh rugby on a high. Incidentally, he has started his Super Rugby coaching career with the Waikato Chiefs with two vicories further elevating himself up the New Zealand coaching tree.

Wales are Grand Slam champions and when beaten semi-finalists by enventual winners, South Africa, last October, they had simply taken too many body shots to keep moving forward.

Ireland, well we know how 2019 went, but people were quick to forget the five outstanding years that preceeded it. Indeed, during that period, Ireland collected three championships but World Cup failure has hung like an albatross around their neck.

Irish rugby has been in rude health for years and there may have been a perception from Wales, justified or otherwise, of a sense of superiorty emanating from their Celtic neighbours. Yet, when this World Cup came round, a Welsh side shorn of their best player, Liam Williams, came within a kick of beating the World Champions in-waiting.

It should count for very little today as Gatland and Schmidt are now both gone but until such time as Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac carve their own paths, the recent past will weigh heavily on this fixture.

Wales are still without Williams, their outstanding full-back has not appeared since suffering an ankle injury in training prior to the World Cup semi-final. Their back line is further depleted by the long-term absence of Gareth Anscombe and Lions centre, Jonathan Davies.

Anscombe’s replacement, the hugely experienced Dan Biggar hardly weakens the team but the inclusion of Saracen’s Nick Tompkins gives the Welsh midfield a perceived callowness.

The back three draws on buckets of experience in Leigh Halfpenny and George North – still only 27! – and buckets of tries in Josh Adams.

Still, this side is not one to fear for Ireland and while Pivac enjoyed some success with the Scarlets, his interntional head coaching experience mirrors Farrell’s, in that he has none.

Today there is an obligation on some of Ireland’s established stars to step it up, none more so than Murray. Some of the rugby loyalists who think you should never be dropped once you’ve earned your spot seem to think Murray is being unduly criticised but the fact is he has not been particularly good for Ireland in the last year.

Conor Murray, Ireland’s best ever scrum-half, is likely playing for his position today. Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Cian Healy and Iain Henderson are far from secure, while Peter O’ Mahony – in as a result of Caelan Doris’ head injury – knows he has 80 minutes to win back the jersey that had been nailed on him for the last three years.

A tip of the hat also to the Aviva Stadium last week who were almost perversely impressive in barely raising a whimper over the 80 minutes. Perhaps it was the stop-start nature of the game or an over-familiarity with Scotland but the result was a subdued crowd, even at the most atmospheric kick-off time.

Wales have garnered a reputation of being able to rely on their mental foritude when their game is not flowing, Ireland quite the opposite. This is an ideal opportunity for Ireland to tip the scales, on a day when the sides look very evenly matched.

Home advantage to swing it.

SUS Prediction: Ireland by 4

Tips: Ireland -3 @ 10/11

Wales H-T/Ireland F-T @ 6/1

Scotland v France , 8th February 2020 4:45pm, Murrayfield

Despite both sides losing on the opening weekend, England visit Murrayfield for today’s late kick off under significnatly more pressure due, as is custom, to Eddie Jones’ combined big mouth and victim routine.

Jones, who seems to neatly occupy the characterisation of ‘great guy if you actually know him’, continued in his quest to antagonise his opposition with little gain when announcing last week that England would unleash “absolute brutality” on France last week. Perhaps he meant brutal in the Irish sense, as a final quarter surge was the only thing that prevented the World Cup runners-up from enduring consecutive hidings.

England performed extremely well for long periods in the World Cup but were aided massively by the facts that they suffered few injuries and played a game less due to the fallout of Typhoon Hagibis. Tomorrow, they face an improved Soctland side without their two most powerful ball carriers, Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi.

Deprived of Vunipola in Paris, Jones sought to brutalise the French without a number eight and with a nominal second row at blindside flanker. Jones’ choices were quite perplexing and, in light of the defeat, he’s doubled down with a slew of flankers at the back of the scrum, Lewis Ludlam coming it to replace Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry remaining at number eight.

Hosts Scotland have a proud history of producing understated but excellent flankers so perhaps Jones decision is rooted in this logic. England were destroyed on the ground in 2018 so it makes sense that they want to be competitive in this area. However, there’s an argument for moving Curry to his natural role and bringing in a ball carrier like Nathan Hughes. The Scots will be delighted that Jones hubris has somewhat backed himself into this corner though.

Scotland’s tournament build up was, of course, blighted by Finn Russell’s Super Sunday, but they performed really well in Dublin. Their line speed was excellent, their scrum dominant and, as Stuart Hogg will be reminded for quite some time, they left a minimum of two points behind at a vital juncture of the game.

Adam Hastings did not look out of place at out-half and Townsend was absolutely correct to retain the Glasgow pivot for the Calcutta Cup fixture. Those 80 minutes should prove invaluable for Hastings and he can be expected to bring Hogg and Sam Johnson into the line at regular intervals.

Meanwhile, Owen Farrell has looked a little off – you’d wonder the mental toll this season has taken on poor, put-upon Saracens players this year – and without Tuilagi, the English midfield suddenly looks a little vulnerable.

England are seven point favourites but that seems a little disrespectful of the hosts, particualrly as they have plenty of positives to carry forward from last week.

Murrayfield will be buzzing, particualrly with the anti-English sporting sentitment having returned to the heady heights of the 90s. This game is already a must win for both sides and Jones has already made the wise decision to avoid the train home.

There’s a sense the flight won’t be much more enjoyable.

SUS Prediction Scotland by 3

Tips 1. Scotland to win @ 11/4

2. Huw Jones anytime try scorer @ 7/2

France v Italy, 9th February 3:00 pm, Stade de France

France returned to something resembling their best in their impressive victory over England last weekend. Shaun Edwards, a major coup for Les Bleus, has their defence working more efficiently and the Stade de France was, once more, cauldron-like.

Antoine Dupont is possibly the best scrum-half in the world right now – apologies to Faf de Klerk and his ridiculous hair – and Charles Ollivon looks an absolutely terrifying prospect. True, Teddy Thomas still has utter disdain for the concept of defence but France can always carry an entertainer.

Italy alas, are not in a good place. There were very few bright spots from last week’s heavy defeat in Cardiff, apart perhaps from their dominant scrum.

Their under 20s had an excellent victory in Wales last Friday week so the future is bright but that won’t give the today’s team much solace.

If you’re still reading at this stage, fair play to you, so we won’t keep you any longer. France are going to win here and it should be a fair hiding. Having said that, the French are contractually obliged to disappoint on the back of an impressive victory so the points may not flow.

The difference now is that Edwards is part of the coaching team. France may not run up 40 plus and that’s a good thing. However, it would be a surprise if they’re huddled under their posts at any point on Sunday afternoon.

SUS Prediction: France 32 Italy 6

Tips 1. Handicap draw (France -26) @ 25/1

2. First try scorer Anthony Bouthier @ 12/1

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2020

Straight Outta Wigan

After four months of initial despondence and then roundly boring and pointless debates, the Six Nations has come round and with it, a quiet sense of optimism for the national team.

Wigan rugby-league legend, Andy Farrell begins his reign in slightly different circumstances to his predecessor, Joe Schmidt. The New Zealander arrived in the wake of a hugely disappointing 2013 Six Nations for Declan Kidney, that culminated in a calamitous defeat in Rome and the death knell for the Kidney era.

We all know what happened last October as New Zealand subjected Ireland to 80 humiliating minutes and an abject, though not unexpected, exit from the 2019 World Cup. However, unlike those who went before him, Schmidt never had to worry about the plank, walking long before any difficult decisions had to be made.

Perhaps with a nod to the continuity synonomous with New Zealand, the IRFU chose from within, appointing fomer dual-code English international, Andy Farrell, to his first head coaching role. Farrell, of course, formed an integral part of Schmidt’s coaching staff, tasked with varying success at overseeing the Irish defence. In addition, Farrell was Stuart Lancaster’s right-hand man during England’s ill-fated World Cup on home soil in 2015.

Farrell comes in under relatively little fanfare, perhaps a combination of supporter fatigue from the World Cup and concerns that our ceiling on the world stage has now been established, Also, given the paramount importance given to the four year World Cup cycle, it’s difficult to get excited for the first Six Nations post- World Cup.

The sniping and general sense of disappointment that followed the World Cup eventually dissipated with a round acknowledgement that Joe Schmidt was indeed the best Irish coach to date. That he was the most successful did not require anyone’s view or opinion.

Nonetheless, all and sundry felt that the players at Schmidt’s disposal were not, perhaps, reaching their full potential. Leinster have been there or thereabouts as the best team in Europe over the last four years, Connacht rejuvenated and Munster, though berated for not being Leinster, back to back European and Pro-14 semi-finalists.

Ulster have admittedly gone thorugh an extremely difficult period, highlighted by the criminal trial involving ex-Irish internationals, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. However, the province have come out the other side and will, you feel, be significant contributors to Farrell’s squads in the coming years.

While the sounds from pundits, who have never watched a Farrell coached side, are that Ireland will attempt a more expansive game, it really will be a case of wait and see. His coaching team is comprised of Mike Catt (attack), Simon Easterby (defence) and John Fogarty (scrum coach). Catt hardly excelled with Italy, Easterby takes up an entirely new role and this is Fogarty’s first role with an international squad so one suspects the coaching unit will take longer to gel than those on field.

Speaking this week, Farrell harked back to a time when Irish teams brought unbridled passion and intensity to the pitch, making obvious reference to the Croke Park performance in 2007. However, people were almost sneered at if they mentioned these qualities in the latter period of Schmidt’s tenure.

There is almost a sense that modern Irish players are too intelligent to be relying on emotion, yet at the same time we are repeatedly fed the line about the passion that Munster display in Thomond Park. Also, how can people endlessly peddle the virtues of sports psychology while simultaneously deriding the relevance of emotion?

There’s no room for emotion in today’s game, just work-ons, learnings and Enda McNulty.

There’s no doubt that modern players must be so well prepared and video analaysis plays an integral role but we are repeatedly told that defence is grounded in attitude so a return to an aggressive line speed would be a welcome sight on Saturday.

Having said all that, some green shoots have sprung and while Farrell hasn’t been as adventurous as some first expected, it’s heartening to see new caps being handed out to two players, Caelan Doris and Ronán Kelleher.

Mayo native Doris has taken the club game by storm this season and there’s a sense that the 20 year-old could be in a position to assume the mantle left vacant since Sean O’ Brien’s departure. If Farrell does want Ireland to return to their rugged roots, Doris and CJ Stander will have to be to the forefront of this movement.

It’s interesting that the Irish team now has the look it once had in the 2000s, except that the foundational power now comes from the Leinster pack and not that of Munster. Indeed, there are eight Leinster forwards in the match day squad and the only reason their most consistent forward of the last two years won’t appear is becuase he’s Australian.

For the first time in a while there is genuine pressure on Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong from David Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter. Kilcoyne’s charge has been momentarily halted by injury while Furlong has recently returned to form and it’s not like there had been a precipitous drop in his form.

Which takes us to the selection which let to the most debate in the last month, scrum-half. John Cooney’s form for Ulster has been irresistible and scoring tries will naturally bring plaudits for a player. However, rugby media and coaches love to draw on past performance – how many times was Rob Kearney’s performance in Chicago mentioned in the subsequent three years – and Murray ticks all the boxes here.

Farrell has extensive experience of coaching the Munster man and his partnership with Sexton can’t be overlooked. And, while the Ospreys can’t be used as a reliable measuring stick, Murray did show a return to previous from in Munster’s comfortable victory a fortnight ago. The reality, though, is that Murray will probably have to play his way out of this team and Cooney’s chance may not materialise, particularly as he is only a year younger than Murray, at 29.

Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway, Ireland’s outstanding though ignored players at the World Cup, come in at the back, while Jacob Stockdale has injury to thank for an opportunity to regain his form of 2018. Will Addison appears to have been ruled out through a niggle and there is a fear that he could potentially be prone to the same injury misfortune which has befallen Joey Carberry.

With a fully stacked deck, Bundee Aki, Ireland’s most consistent perfomer in midfield over the last 18 months gets the nod ahead of Robbie Henshaw and few could argue.

Garry Ringrose has been outstanding this seaon and if this back line really do have licence to take chances or think for themselves, or whatever it is they couldn’t or wouldn’t do last season, then the results should be pleasantly surprising.

While Ireland have quietly regenerated, Saturday’s visitors, Scotland, arrive into the tournment opener in relative disarray. Finn Russell, the tournaments’s best attacking player, has been sent back to Paris after an ill-judged, solo piss-up last week.

To be fair to Russell, everyone knows that Sunday pints are particularly tasty. However, they’re best enjoyed in the company of others and ideally not in the bar in front of your boss, especially when work the next day involves getting battered on a rugby pitch and not lurking behind a computer.

Russell is replaced by Glasgow’s, Adam Hastings. Scotland’s remit is to attack and Hastings will attempt this but Russell is an undoubted loss. That said, no amount of back line talent will rectify Sotland’s problems up front.

The Scotish squad isn’t quite in disarray but Russell’s actions, which if stories are to be believed are baffling to say the least, have left the side in quite a predicament. Outmuscled by Ireland and filleted by Japan, the Scots went home from the World Cup with their tails firmly between their legs.

Scotland, its administrators rather than players, came out of the World Cup looking like utter clowns. SRU chief executive, Mark Dodson, suggested that the abandoning of their game against Japan could make Scotland “collateral damage” to the fallout of the typhoon. Anyway, amidst the genuine devestation that befell the country in the wake of the typhoon, the game went ahead, Scotland lost and some form of karma endured.

Townsend has been inclined to curb some of Scotland’s proclivites towards the cavalier and it will be interesting to see whether this provides some much needed stability or whether their game falls away once their attacking instincts are blunted. If the Scottish set piece hasn’t improved then the result from five months ago should be repeated.

Farrell couldn’t ask for a much easier opening fixture for his tenure – he would be forced to make wholesale changes if Italy were in town – and anything outside of an Irish victory, and a comfortable one at that, seems most unlikely.

Don’t expect the wheel to be reinvented but a sharper, more engaged backline should reap the dividends earned by Ireland’s superior pack.

The crowd can do their bit too and prove they’re not just in for the good times. And, while tougher days lie ahead for all concerned, Ireland should take up from they left off in Yokohama.

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 16

Tips – Ireland -13 @ 10/11

Conor Murray Anytime Try Scorer @ 4/1

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