November leaves fringe players in no doubt how to impress in Champions Cup

Stuart McCloskey, Jimmy O’Brien and Robert Baloucoune among those to have learned plenty from recent internationals

Rex Stout, a prolific writer of detective fiction novels the most celebrated of which involved the character Nero Wolfe, once said that “there are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.”

Don’t be scared off by the odd left field number that follows. In trawling through an excellent season under Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, it’s instructive to note that 86 different players wore a green jersey with Ireland, Ireland A and Emerging Ireland. There was some cross pollination personnel wise across more than one of the teams listed.

There is a temptation to suggest that anyone who didn’t feature, except for injured players like the ridiculously unfortunate Will Connors and Will Addison to highlight a couple, is languishing in a subliminal realm when it comes to the thought process of the Ireland coaching group.

Irish rugby by numbers, in the end of year report, offers impressive figures. Ireland finished second in the Six Nations and secured a Triple Crown, winning four of five matches behind a Grand Slam winning France, their only defeat in Paris.


Farrell’s squad made history in the summer, beating Rugby Championship winners New Zealand for the first time on their home turf, claiming the Test series 2-1 against the All Blacks, and drawing a two-game shootout, 1-1, against the Maori All Blacks.

They took the number one world ranking into the Autumn Nations Series and squeezed past world champions South Africa and Australia, narrowly, and in the middle match against Fiji with a much-changed team and a few new caps had a little more to spare on the scoreboard.

Tag on a record equalling 12 successive home wins and for only the second time in history, 2016 the first, a clean sweep against the southern hemisphere behemoths in a calendar year.

The results represent the hummock of the iceberg, the bit that’s easily visible but the mass beneath sea level, the bummock, in this case team patterns and player performance issues, are what will engage Farrell as he plots a course for the 2023 Six Nations Championship and a World Cup in France later that year. He’d like it to be plain sailing for the most part with no nasty surprises.

The depth chart that he’s been able to compile this season across the various iterations of the Irish teams was important but what was invaluable was hands-on access to those players by the national coaching team.

That intimate experience facilitated handing out homework tailored to the individual’s progression. It’ll be cross-checked during the upcoming Champions Cup pool matches pre and post-Christmas and also following the URC interprovincial festive derbies.

But as if to prove that not everything can be pre-planned or scheduled, Johnny Sexton’s calf issue suffered in the warm-up for the Wallaby Test offered a reminder that sport occasionally throws a curveball.

Ross Byrne, the 86th different player to tog out across the three different national playing squads, underlined the value of technique and temperament when kicking the match-winning penalty against the Wallabies. In some respects, his achievement is a beacon of hope to players stranded on the periphery of the Test environment.

Byrne’s been told by Uncle Tom Cobley and all of the areas in his game that need to be developed and that’s a challenge for him, to try and make those tweaks or he’ll be relegated once again to the “break glass in case of emergency”. His previous game for Ireland was a blink and you’ll miss it cameo against England in the 2021 Six Nations.

A player requires a thick skin and a strong mindset when constantly barracked about what he can’t do. Whatever about his province with the current Ireland set-up, he faces two choices – step up, or step aside.

Those that cannot fulfil the requirements of “Farrell’s footie” to give the gameplan a moniker, won’t last long as there are others to whom the head coach can turn. What Byrne should take heart from is that when called upon he produced in a clutch moment.

The newly-minted world player of the year, Josh van der Flier, is arguably the best example of a player who was given a “to-do” list in rugby development terms, and went away and applied himself rigorously to that task.

He’s recently spoken about how Farrell wanted him to improve his ball carrying to round out his skillset. However, when he lost his starting place to Will Connors, it wasn’t because the latter was a better ball carrier. Connors’ main strengths were a brilliant chop tackle and speed off the line in defence. Injury to Connors facilitated his initial return to the Irish team but Van der Flier improved in every aspect of his game.

Therein lies the nub of the assignment for players returning to their provinces after the November Tests – to display the attributes required to play for Ireland while operating within the different playing parameters of their respective provincial systems.

Robert Baloucoune needs to work in off his wing more in a green shirt rather than the more orthodox fashion in which he’s used at Ulster. Jacob Stockdale, player number 81 on the list, one appearance in green this year while playing for Ireland A, needs to rediscover his Test match mojo that previously made him a star.

Stuart McCloskey should be better informed as to what’s expected of him in a green shirt, James Hume, Nick Timoney and Kieran Treadwell too, aware that there are add-ons required: just as the national team evolves in style and substance so too must its players.

If you look at Jack Crowley, who has come a long way in a short time, Calvin Nash, who impressed the Irish coaching group on the Emerging Ireland tour as did Max Deegan, Scott Penny, John Hodnett, Tom Stewart, and Tom Ahern, they must, except for the injured Ahern, push their way into provincial matchday 23s for the upcoming Champions Cup matches and interpros.

The most valuable currency is matches for the next eight weeks with the eyes of Farrell and his coaching team watching. Whoever wears the nine and 10 jerseys for Munster get to sit in the box-seat first as back-up for Ireland to the Leinster duo. When everyone is fit, where do Jimmy O’Brien, Joe McCarthy and Ryan Baird fit into Leinster’s matchday 23? Can Jack Conan hold off Deegan for a jersey in the backrow?

Jeremy Loughman has stepped up, can he continue to do so through his performances in a red shirt and put pressure on Cian Healy in a national context? For Farrell to indulge in any experimentation in selection terms in the Six Nations, he must have genuinely viable, in-form, suitably skilled alternatives to the main cast.

Ireland’s performances in November were a little less assured – there was a bug in camp that drained energy levels over the last fortnight – than those earlier in the year where several issues arose, not least the kicking game, primarily in exiting the Irish 22, and some substandard aerial work, which won’t have gone unnoticed by Six Nations rivals.

The next 10-game block for the provinces might help to clarify a pecking order in-house and beyond. Farrell has done a superb job this year in exposing the widest possible body of players to “international” rugby, while retaining performance goals and values that exceeded most observers’ wildest aspirations.

His message has been consistent, he’s created a culture in which players and coaches have been able to flourish and deserves credit for his stewardship over the past 12 months. Part of his mantra has been to repeatedly stress that Ireland can’t stand still, and the focus must always be forward.

That translates in a very simple way to players, starting this weekend for some: step up or stand aside.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer