Farrell Faces Big Decisions For Six Nations Bow
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Ireland suffered an all-too-familiar defeat in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup, being thrashed by New Zealand at Tokyo Stadium. It was the end of the line for Joe Schmidt as head coach, and although he had delivered three Six Nations titles and the Grand Slam in 2018, the South African failed to guide his side beyond the last eight of the most important competition of all.
Andy Farrell now takes the reins with the hope of a stronger outing in the World Cup in four years. The work begins now and Ireland have a challenge rebuilding their squad amid key departures along with injury concerns ahead of the Six Nations. They are backed at 4/1 in the Six Nations 2020 odds from Paddy Power behind only England to win the competition, suggesting that there is an element of confidence that they could make a surge for the crown, although they would need a lot to go in their favour.
Unfortunately for Farrell, he has inherited a team that have difficult decisions to make with older players and have already lost their inspirational skipper Rory Best to retirement. The hooker did have a noticeable decline in the World Cup, but his leadership skills were vital to Schmidt. He will be a massive loss for the team and the replacement would naturally be Jonny Sexton, but his fitness problems could force Farrell to turn to Peter O’Mahony to lead his side into the tournament. The flanker has done it before and has been fine in the role, but the bigger concern is the potential for Sexton to miss the Six Nations.
Sexton was battling injuries during the World Cup and was not operating at the peak of his powers. At the age of 34, it raises the question whether we have seen the last of Sexton as one of the leading fly-halves in the game. His control of the ball and ability to create tries out of nothing were the spark of Ireland’s surge to the top of the world rankings before the tournament in Japan. Joey Carbery has been a solid deputy, although he does not have the class and guile of Sexton – it’s an unfair comparison to make. Few players have the quality of Sexton in all aspects of the game – not only his deadly accurate kicking. Losing him for the Six Nations would be a nightmare for Farrell, as without him they would seriously struggle to justify their second favourites tag.
It’s not the only area of concern as stalwart players Rob Kearney and Keith Earls could be heading towards the twilight of their careers. Kearney was already splitting time with Jordan Larmour at full-back, but the move could come to make the latter the permanent starter at the position. With the next World Cup in mind, it should be done sooner rather than later. Earls may lose out to Andrew Conway, while Jacob Stockdale looks to be the next star on the rise.
Elsewhere the forwards, particularly in the second row, appear to be sorted for the next four years. James Ryan is a standout alongside Iain Henderson, while Jean Kleyn and Tadhg Beirne have starter quality. The front row is where there are bigger concerns as Cian Healy, David Kilcoyne and John Ryan are all over thirty, paving the way for Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong to make the prop position their own in the Six Nations. Without Best, Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell will be battling for the starting role at hooker.
There are a number of huge decisions for Farrell to make in his bow as Ireland’s head coach – expectations are not sky high due to the presence of England in the tournament as the overwhelming favourites, but the new man will want to set a tone for the next four years with a strong outing.