The 2021 Six Nations should ultimately be remembered as a positive one for Andy Farrell’s Ireland. Assuming that France do a job on the Scots in Paris, Ireland place 3rd with a record of three wins and two losses. Were it not for Peter O’Mahony’s dismissal in Cardiff then I might have been sitting here writing about a title winning Ireland side. Alas, silverware continues to evade Andy Farrell but a continually positive trend in performance signals great things in the future of this Ireland team. Here are five things to takeaway from Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.
There’s Life in the Old Dogs Yet
Last season, many were ready to write off the long established half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton after a string of lacklustre performances. This was coupled with Sexton’s new role as team captain where, at times, Sexton let his competitive spirit bleed into his communicative duties. This tournament, the legendary duo have gone a long way to dispel much of that criticism.
Sexton has looked much more like his old self again. The spit-second decision making and creativity that sets Sexton apart looked to be back and Conor Murray has looked sharp again. The pair’s new vigour has increased confidence that they will continue to produce at a high level for however long that they pull on an Ireland shirt.
Centurion Cian Healy is performing also at as high a level as ever and Andy Farrell’s ability to rotate him with Dave Kilcoyne preserves Healy’s body to play at his best for a shorter period. Irelands aging bodies look as if they’ll be contributing, and valuably so, for years to come.
In the autumn of 2020, a Kiwi by the name of James Lowe finally gained eligibility for Ireland after turning out for Leinster for the past few years. The hype around his debut was tangible and what followed was a reasonable debut campaign during the Autumn Nations Cup, nothing special but something to build from.
Unfortunately for Lowe, and Ireland, this Six Nations wasn’t anything to shout about either. One try in the opener against Wales and none in the games that followed, culminating with being dropped for Jacob Stockdale in Ireland’s final game against England.
Don’t let this put you off though, Lowe offers an All-Black skillset: an ability to offload that isn’t matched by another Lions-eligible winger, he has a huge and accurate boot and a great big physical frame to compliment his good level of pace.
James Lowe’s place in Andy Farrell’s plans remains to be seen, but his talent is unquestionable. Whilst he didn’t display the quality we know he has, Ireland fans should still look at their new import with a great deal of optimism.
Beirne Baby Beirne
Many people wouldn’t bat an eye if you turned around and said that Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne was the best player in the Six Nations this year. 10th in minutes played, join 6th in tries scored with two, was the 4th most prolific offloader amongst forwards, posted a 98% tackle success rate and lead the tournament in turnovers made by a whole four turnovers with ten.
Beirne was a standout for Ireland both as a lock and when used as a blindside flanker. These immense performances and his versatility attracted plaudits from many pundits and there are calling for him to start for the Lions against South Africa.
Beirne is proving to the world that he is a world class player that will play a key part of Andy Farrell’s Ireland plans for the next World Cup.
The Void at Fly Half
Former World Player of the Year Jonathan Sexton has been a quality player for so long that they have never had to address the lack of a quality backup at fly half. However, the question is not only one of a backup, but now one of a successor to the Ireland skipper.
Billy Burns attracted the ire of many an Irish fan when his mistake cost Ireland a chance of winning in Cardiff as he kicked the ball dead in the end zone after the clock went red. There wasn’t much sign of any other fly half during this Six Nations campaign.
Joey Carbery has been out injured for the majority of the past eighteen months and is the face many hope will deputise Sexton once he has returned to fitness. Paddy Jackson is playing some of the best rugby of his career at London Irish but has failed to cement himself as part of the Ireland setup in his past involvements.
The ‘wunderkind’ option comes in the form of Harry Byrne. Not heard of him? He’s a twenty-one-year-old fly half currently plying his trade for Lansdowne FC in the All Ireland League and is a product of Leinster’s academy. He broke into their first team in 2019, starting his first game for them in November of that year. He’s the younger brother of current 3rd choice fly half Ross Byrne and boasts the admiration of Brian O’Driscoll to boot.
Whoever Andy Farrell chooses, the post-Sexton era for Ireland could be subject to a great deal of teething problems.
A Legend Departs
Prior to Ireland’s final game against England, CJ Stander announced that he would be hanging up his boots at the end of the season. A certainty to feature for the Lions in some capacity according to many pundits, this came as a huge shock to everyone apart from Stander.
This is a huge shame for Ireland, the back rower has been playing some splendid rugby as of late and his well-rounded skillset is a huge asset. However, whereas the void left by Sexton will be difficult to fill, Ireland’s options in the back row are plentiful and Stander’s premature retirement will allow the likes of Caelan Doris to fill Stander’s void.
Hopefully, Stander is allowed to pull on a Lions jersey for a swansong fit for a player of his legendary status.
What did you think of Ireland’s campaign? Was Tadhg Beirne player of the tournament for you? Who is Ireland’s successor in the 10 jersey? What is your favourite CJ Stander memory? Let us know in the comments below! Share with your friends. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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