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Sunday 19 January 2020

Sexton is main man for now but Ryan will be leader of the pack

A strong start and a good showing against Scotland is crucial to the new Ireland era

James Ryan could be a future Ireland captain. Photo: Sportsfile
James Ryan could be a future Ireland captain. Photo: Sportsfile

Of the starting XV who were blown away by New Zealand in October's World Cup quarter-final, only Rory Best and Rob Kearney are not part of Andy Farrell's plans for the Six Nations.

Of the replacements, Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne are injured, while Niall Scannell and Rhys Ruddock are jettisoned from the 35-man squad.

That game ended in a record defeat and was followed by calls to rip up Ireland's approach in the hope that in four years' time the team would finally break the last-eight glass ceiling.

With five uncapped players, three of whom are 21, in the squad and the selection of four development players there is a nod to that future.

Captain

But the presence of a captain who will be 38 when France rolls around indicates the coach's need for a winning start. Johnny Sexton should have been Ireland's captain at the last World Cup, but the odds are against him being in situ in 2023.

There was a strong case for James Ryan, who looks the obvious pick to lead the team in France, but Farrell has decided to focus on the present.

Sexton remains the alpha in the group, a player the rest respect and look up to, and a man the coaching staff respect above all others.

A strong start and a good showing in this tournament is essential for Farrell. The opener against Scotland is his first match as a head coach.

So, Ryan's hopes will have to be put on hold. There was no vice-captain named in the squad, but it would be no surprise to see the second-row become the pack leader. After all, Farrell's own son Owen only became England captain months before the last World Cup. He clearly feels there is no rush.

Farrell is new to the role, but not to the set-up and he can't escape his association with the disastrous performance in Japan, given he was the defence coach when the All Blacks scored seven tries against so many of his current charges.

Joe Schmidt took the majority of the blame, Farrell and his assistants Simon Easterby and Richie Murphy were all there when the walls came down on Ireland's World Cup.

Now, they must put some distance between this regime and the previous one.

While he has preserved Schmidt's leadership group, Farrell has made some controversial selection calls.

Chief amongst them is the decision to omit Ruddock, who is an automatic starter in a rampant Leinster side and was one of the few players to come out of Japan in credit.

Peter O'Mahony remains in the squad despite the absence of a carrying threat from his game, but the presence of Leinster's competing No 8s, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris, means there could be a change of emphasis in the back-row and the Munster skipper could be back in competition with his provincial team-mate, CJ Stander, for the No 6 shirt.

Still, if form is everything, it is hard to understand picking O'Mahony over Ruddock.

Devin Toner's return comes at the expense of Jean Kleyn, who is expected to be available for Six Nations selection despite the neck injury he suffered against Racing 92.

Toner's stock rebounded almost instantly from Schmidt's crazy call to leave him at home. He may lack dynamism, but if young hooker Rónán Kelleher is given his head then there's a real logic in picking the 6ft 10ins lineout tactician to aid him.

Niall Scannell is another high-profile absentee along with Seán Cronin, whose omission is less of a surprise since he wasn't in last month.

After Rory Best's retirement, hooker is one of Farrell's big calls.

Connacht's Dave Heffernan is perhaps a surprise inclusion, but this regime are big fans.

Operator

Kelleher has not played in Leinster's last six games due to injury, while Rob Herring is the most experienced operator with eight caps. Ulster's lineout has not been particularly helpful to his cause.

Behind the scrum, there was no surprise to see John Cooney picked alongside Conor Murray and Luke McGrath, while his provincial partner Billy Burns will vie with Ross Byrne to back up Sexton.

Stuart McCloskey was a curious omission given his form and offloading ability, but he's in a strong field and there were no surprises in the back-three given Rob Kearney has been unable to regain his Leinster place since being left out before Christmas.

His absence from the No 15 jersey does indicate a change of direction and his first-team selection will tell us a lot.

But, for all the talk of long-term thinking, the head coach needs to win in the here and now and he has the tried-and-trusted players available to him in most positions.

The next question is which ones he uses, and for how long, as his regime gets up and running.

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