New-look Ireland team Andy Farrell should start against Italy
Six changes and two lads than could win Test debuts off the bench.
"Our approach, our attitude doesn't change," declared Andy Farrell, less than an hour after his Ireland side bowed out of the Six Nations title race.
"I've just said to the boys in the changing room that we talk about the strength of the group and the togetherness of the group and how close they are - we'll see how close we are now, we'll show our true character because it's about finishing [strong].
"We're not even halfway through, but making sure in these next three games we're at our best, and that approach doesn't change no matter what."
Ireland did show character in that losing effort against Wales, but they looked second best for long periods against a French side that could have buried the game after 55 minutes had they been more clinical.
On the latest House of Rugby Ireland, host Eimear Considine spoke with Fergus McFadden and Tomás O'Leary [LISTEN from 2:00 below] about where Ireland go from here and the potential XV to face Italy.
O'Leary and McFadden both played for an Ireland team, in 2012, that struggled to transition from the focus of a World Cup back to the Six Nations grind. It was a period, under Declan Kidney, of sink or swim, before Kidney himself was eventually cut adrift.
O'Leary would like to see at least three changes in the Ireland team. "I thought Jamison Gibson Park did very well, in terms of tempo," he began.
"Even when the game was in the melting pot, towards the end, he had a couple of superb catches, and a couple of offloads. He was lively and he set a good pace.
"It would be good to see Craig Casey get a taste, as well, but I was impressed with Gibson Park. I thought Byrne did well at 10 when he came on. I’d probably like to see the likes of Jack Carty get an opportunity at 10, too. So those two guys – Jack Carty and Casey in at 9.
"I’d probably look at someone else as a Number 8, as an alternative to CJ. He’s played a lot of minutes over the last few years and we know what he can do. Look, he’s been a fantastic all-carrier and he’s going to be in our starting back row, probably at 8 or 6, but I’d like to see someone else given a chance at 8 against the Italians, just to see what other type of balance we can have in the back row as well."
For McFadden, he can see Farrell largely sticking by the players that went close, but not close enough, in the opening rounds of the championship.
"You’d imagine he might cap a couple of guys for the first time," the former Leinster and Ireland winger commented.
"That might be a good energy booster for the group and those guys – Craig Casey and Tom O’Toole – would be two who would get an opportunity there. I would like to see a couple of changes but, at the same time, because the first two matches, unintentionally for them, have been quite disrupted. They probably want to see a couple of those combinations again, so I doubt they are going to ring in the changes.
"Italy made it tough for England, actually, in Twickenham for a lot of that match. I do think we’ll beat them but we don’t want to take them for granted. We’ll want to get a bonus point and we need to beat them by as much a possible, so they’ll still be picking a very strong side."
Our take on the matter is that if this championship is already in the rear-view, why not give Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton another game to rest up and have a look at the all-Ulster half-back pairing of John Cooney and Billy Burns?
CJ Stander can be spared the trip to Italy too [although he'd probably hate that] so were going for Ryan Baird and Gavin Coombes to cover the second and back rows. Our big twist is on the bench, with O'Toole included and both Casey, Carty and Jacob Stockdale there to try unlock a [hopefully] flagging Italy defence in the second half.
Our Ireland team to face Italy
15. Hugo Keenan
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Gary Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Craig Casey
1. Cian Healy
2. Ronan Kelleher
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. CJ Stander
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan
Subs: Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Tom O'Toole, Ryan Baird, Rhys Ruddock, Conor Murray, Billy Burns, Keith Earls.
With another weekend off, after the Italy game, Farrell may yet do what Eddie Jones did and go with his strongest available XV to try get some winning rhythm established.
We have gone for six changes but, in reality, expect three or four and don't be surprised if Murray and Sexton are wearing 9 and 10.