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Wednesday 22 January 2020

Farrell reveals a bit more of himself with his first squad and his open-door policy to selection

Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile

Sitting in the uniquely-flash surroundings of the IRFU indoor facility in Abbotstown a few weeks ago, Andy Farrell made out like he was going to put some meat on the bones of his first Ireland training squad.

Then he went all vegan. The fat number of 45 would of course come down as the Six Nations main course presented itself, but there would, he said, likely be flavours in there that had been left out of the Stocktake, as his first squad had been branded. We left that day concluding that the main purpose of the gig had been to have a look-see at the facility rather than the man himself.

The players got their first handle on what Farrell is looking for with the announcement of the 35 for the Six Nations Championship. He used an interesting term at the end of the one-day session over Christmas, and repeated it today: self-selection.

This is not quite the self-service checkout in the supermarket where you can skip the trolley queue and scan your way to freedom. You still have to join the queue, but evidently make a case so strong that all Farrell has to do is rubber-stamp it and shove you up the front.

So, Niall Scannell and Jean Kleyn have the wrong stuff in their baskets. That wasn't immediately apparent to all of us. So, too, Rhys Ruddock. A Welsh website ran a list of 14 players considered to have missed the cut when Wayne Pivac named his first Six Nations squad, a few of whom were stretching the terms of the description.

In this country you could rattle off a dozen lads, from Rob Kearney and Seán Cronin at one end of the spectrum to Stuart McCloskey and Eric O'Sullivan at the other, who could hold their hands up and claim the capacity to do a job.

McCloskey is hoping for more daylight in his life now that the Joe Schmidt cloud has moved on, but seemingly is being squeezed out because 12 is the only song he sings, and Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw know the words better.

McCloskey is 27, playing well and has lots to offer. If the message coming from the new management is that form is the prime currency then they are also claiming to be open to foreign exchange. So if an opponent offers a threat best dealt with by someone not ranked the number one all-rounder in his position, but is playing well, then give him a go. We'll see.

The O'Sullivan situation is a lesson - a recurring one in sport - that the picture can change with the weather. A year ago he was flying, playing 26 games for Ulster and getting better as the season wore on. Two hours down the motorway Jack McGrath was filling the shirt 12 times for Leinster, on top of four for Ireland - where he had slipped to third choice - before season's end. His leaving of Leinster, where he struggled for fitness, didn't cause much consternation.

Yet he has, if not quite reinvented himself, then at least got back to a level good enough to earn a place in another Six Nations squad. This can't be too heartening for O'Sullivan but if he wants to swap notes then he'll find lots of lads with a similar story to tell. There's a lot of rugby to be played yet. And Farrell, the man new to head coaching, still has the welcome sign over his door.

It's a long shot that any of it will be carried on by the four development players, added to the 35 for this Championship.

But if 'fluid' is the word that keeps trickling out from this new set-up then you'd never know.

In the Schmidt regime it was common for lads to be brought in under the cover of darkness to see what they could offer to, and learn from, the squad.

Designating Ryan Baird, Robert Balacoune, Harry Byrne and Will Connors as Development Players puts their status on a firm footing, and lets them live a bit more of the life without undue pressure. It's a good idea.

And it's also good to see some change across the board.

Before Ireland headed to the World Cup last autumn would you have thrown a few bob on Rob Herring, Dave Heffernan and Ronan Kelleher as the hooking contingent going into the Six Nations? You wouldn't have been given the chance. In opening a new door Andy Farrell has revealed a bit more about himself.

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