Picking An Ireland Team For The Autumn Nations That Might Turn Things Around

New era?

It’s been a difficult couple of seasons for Ireland following the incredible heights of 2018 that saw them become one of the best teams in the world.

A disappointing 2019 Six Nations campaign was followed up with an even worse showing at the Rugby World Cup and then a mixed 2020 that saw them defeat Wales and Scotland but lose to England and France.

We’re only five games into Andy Farrell’s tenure but already people are starting to panic. Farrell’s tenure was supposed to be a new beginning and while he’s worked to introduce as much new talent as possible, not much appears to have changed since the disaster that was Japan 2019.

So what next? With the Autumn Nations Cup set to kick-off on Saturday week, Farrell needs to reshuffle his deck once more but his options are pretty limited. It’s easy to say a certain player needs to be replaced, but finding that replacement is another thing.

Let’s start in the front-row. Cian Healy has little to no competition here right now with Dave Kilcoyne once again sidelined and Jack McGrath still struggling for form. At hooker, it looks like Ronan Kelleher will be fit so that’s an area that can be improved on. At tighthead, Andrew Porter has done a good job but he’s no Tadhg Furlong, so the sooner the latter is fit, the better.

In the engine room, Farrell looks set to welcome Iain Henderson back from suspension, while there’s hope that Ryan Baird will be fit. In the back-row, Dan Leavy now has two cameos under his belt for Leinster but perhaps a return is too soon. Or maybe not?

It’s clear there’s plenty of talent in the pack right now but getting the balance right both in the short-term and long-term is key. And that’s no easy task. It’s much easier said than done when you’re trying to win games but also work within the current cycle and blood the right players in.

On one hand, you can take a chance with a younger player but if that experiment fails you’re left thinking maybe you should have gone with someone who is a little more experienced and build form and confidence within the squad. It’s such a delicate balance.

Farrell needs to change things but it’s not necessarily a case of starting with a blank canvas.

The backline is where things get really tricky. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been everpresent for so many years now and it’s hard to see the latter being around come the next World Cup, given the fact that he’s 35 now.

Murray certainly has another World Cup in him and while guys like John Cooney, Jamison Gibson-Park and Kieran Marmion certainly deserve their chance – they will never reach the levels of peak Conor Murray. So perhaps it’s better to invest your time in him and try to get him back to those levels, rather than drop him. Especially considering the fact that we’ve seen signs of that in recent weeks.

As for Sexton, yes Ireland need to move on – but who replaces him? The only man who has come close in recent seasons is Joey Carbery, and with him sidelined for the foreseeable future – there aren’t really any other options. Are Ireland really going to win a World Cup with Ross Byrne or Jack Carty at ten? Be honest. They’re both excellent players but nowhere near Sexton, even at 35.

The only option right now is perhaps Farrell should look at bringing Ian Madigan back into the fold. He’s a man who has proven himself at the highest level. He’s also still only 31 so there’s nothing stopping him from going to another World Cup.

In the centre, Farrell needs to shuffle things a little here and start utilising the wealth he has. Stuart McCloskey and Chris Farrell need some minutes and Robbie Henshaw needs more game time at 12. Ringrose will likely be out for all the games and it’s time Aki took a backseat for a while, even though he’s been playing well.

The back-three was a problem area in the last two games but with James Lowe eligible this month and Keith Earls likely to be fit, Farrell can turn the back-three into an asset for the Autumn Nations. Stockdale at fifteen hasn’t worked out, so his selection at fullback is key.

And finally, the biggest decision of all – the captaincy. With such a short turnaround to the Autumn Nations, it’s probably unlikely he will officially change the captaincy but if he’s clever he can test out a few options.

Drop Sexton to the bench and give Stander a go at the captaincy, give Ryan a go at it and so on.

Anyway, here’s how we think he can change things up this month.

Possible Ireland team for the Autumn Nations Cup

15. Andrew Conway/Hugo Keenan
14. Keith Earls
13. Chris Farrell
12. Robbie Henshaw/Stuart McCloskey
11. James Lowe
10. Ian Madigan
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Ronan Kelleher
3. Andrew Porter/Tadhg Furlong
4. Ryan Baird/Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. Caelan Doris
7. Dan Leavy/Will Connors/Josh van der Flier
8. CJ Stander (c)

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