Six Nations 2021: Ireland opt for experience but title challenge unrealistic

Ireland coach Andy Farrell unveiled an experienced 36-man squad for the forthcoming Six Nations despite contingents of Irish supporters hankering for change.

A staggered 2020 tournament saw Ireland finish in third with three wins from five, having had title hopes dashed on the final day after losing to France.

In the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup, Farrell’s side took another third-place finish, beating Scotland in the play-off. 

Indeed, this was perhaps Ireland’s only moment of genuine promise last year – impressively edging past a Scotland side very much on the up.

Generally, however, they proved to be flat-track bullies, making a habit of losing to the best and seeing off the rest. 

With Farrell having promoted eight players to the Test ranks since succeeding Joe Schmidt in 2019, this time he took a change of tack.

Ireland have welcomed back a lot of pedigree. Tadhg Furlong, David Kilcoyne, Rhys Ruddock, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour have returned in hope of improving the team’s stuttering recent form. 

Moreover, only two uncapped players have been picked – 21-year-old Munster scrum-half Craig Casey and 22-year-old Ulster prop Tom O’Toole. 

Both have been selected as deputies, though the latter could feature more prominently with tighthead Furlong having not played since defeat to England last February due to back, hamstring and calf issues.

In fact, Ireland look thin at prop, selecting only two looseheads, one of whom – Kilcoyne – is lacking in match fitness. 

The rest of the forwards have all been retained from the Autumn Nations Cup squad and will look to correct their malfunctioning line-out.

Set pieces were once a staple of Irish rugby, and Farrell’s side will need to restore their foundation to have any chance of being competitive.

If Ireland are to shore up their set pieces, Leinster lock James Ryan will be key.

The 24-year-old is a leading contender to partner Maro Itoje in the Lions’ second row for the summer South African tour and a good tournament for Ryan could make the Irish a tricky prospect.

Though a serious title challenge may be unrealistic, the fixtures have fallen in Ireland’s favour this year, with France and England both visiting the Aviva Stadium.

They may not be contenders, but this year’s Six Nations could provide Ireland with a platform to lay foundations for future success. 

Featured image credit: Faiz Azizan via Shutterstock

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