WHEN YOU CONSIDER Tom Farrell’s consistently excellent and standout form in the green of Connacht in isolation, few would quibble with his inclusion in Ireland’s Six Nations squad to be named by Joe Schmidt later today.
He would be fully deserving of the opportunity.
But the return to fitness of Chris Farrell at Munster and the anticipated comeback of Robbie Henshaw means Ireland’s centre stocks have never been as well resourced, nor have the midfield ranks been more competitive.
Farrell at Connacht training yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
History shows us that there is precious little room for experimentation during the Six Nations window, not least in this year of all years, as Schmidt’s policy is to generally stick with the tried and trusted, while keeping the number of uncapped players as low as possible.
For example, Jordan Larmour was the only new face in last year’s pre-tournament Six Nations squad selected by the Kiwi, and while a panel of up to 38 players certainly allows scope for a couple to be included this time around, this squad is becoming an increasingly hard one to break into.
It appeared Farrell’s chances of inclusion had increased when Henshaw’s fitness for the opening rounds of Ireland’s Grand Slam defence was cast into doubt, further too when there was huge concern for Chris Farrell after he picked up a knee injury in the inter-pro against Connacht in Galway.
But Leinster delivered a positive update on Henshaw’s fitness last week and his remarkable healing powers could see him return from a hamstring problem ahead of schedule and in time for England on 2 February, while Farrell was, thankfully, given the all-clear after a scan. He started and stood out against Gloucester last weekend.
On the assumption that Bundee Aki will be joined in the squad by Garry Ringrose, Chris Farrell and Henshaw, there is unlikely to be a position for Tom Farrell in the Carton House party, even if Schmidt does opt to include a fifth centre.
Stuart McCloskey, back in the fold last November, newly-capped Sam Arnold and Rory Scannell are all potentially ahead of Farrell in the midfield pecking order, while Will Addison’s versatility offers an alternative option, after the Ulster back started the Autumn Test win over Argentina at 13 beside Aki and then at fullback against USA a week later.
Farrell, however, is certainly in Schmidt’s thoughts and his form for Connacht — both at inside and outside centre — this term has not gone unnoticed. The 25-year-old was called into the squad ahead of the All Blacks Test and took part in a two-day minicamp over Christmas.
As of yesterday morning, he had not heard from Schmidt or any of the Ireland coaching staff but remains hopeful of receiving the call ahead of this afternoon’s squad announcement, expected sometime after 3pm. He would be a wholly merited inclusion.
“It is at the back of my head, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” he says. “I’ve been in camps in November for a short stint and I’ve been in for a two-day camp over Christmas as well and it has given me that taste for it. I really enjoyed my time and I’m hoping to be involved again.”
Whether or not the call comes later, Farrell is happy with how he has performed for the western province this term, following up his outstanding year last season in a team that struggled under previous head coach Kieran Keane.
The 25-year-old has been in excellent form. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
The Dublin native started all three of the Pro14 inter-pros over the Christmas period and excelled against Munster, in particular, demonstrating his brilliant footwork and ball-carrying ability, while also scoring a superb breakaway score after ripping Arno Botha — no mean feat — of possession.
If the case for inclusion wasn’t already strong, he provided more persuasive evidence in an all-action display at the Sportsground, the type of which he has been producing consistently now for the last two seasons.
“To be honest, I probably am happy with my personal performances,” Farrell continues.
“And that kind of comes from the team performances, and how we’re playing as a team. I know we’re not the finished article or anything but we are improving, we’re on a steady upward curve. It does help my game and the rest of the backs as well when we’re playing that positive, expansive game.
“That is obviously in the back of my mind, to get capped by Ireland. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. Most players in the country want to be in that position. It is in the back of my mind, and is something I am striving for.”
Farrell explains that his brief stints with the Ireland squad in recent months have been eye-opening and allowed him to learn a lot in preparation for a full call-up should it come in the near future.
“You do pick up things, probably the thing I noticed the most was the speed of it [training] and the intensity. Just everything on the pitch is so fast and you have to be on the ball all the time. I noticed when I came back [to Connacht] and I felt I could try and up the intensity here and the speed of the whole game.
“I tried to literally soak up as much as the calls and plays as I could. I didn’t try and get bogged down with the starter plays or anything like that, it was just more so the general phase play and defence calls. Just try and take in as much as possible and grab guys to sit down if they had a minute.”
Either way, Farrell’s career has taken off since his arrival at Connacht a little over two years ago after he was recruited by Pat Lam on a short-term deal to provide cover during a midfield injury crisis in Galway.
Farrell pictured in Galway yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Farrell had been plying his trade in the English Championship with the Bedford Blues when the opportunity to return home arose, and he smiles when reflecting on how far he has come since then.
“When I went over to the Championship, I went over with the aim of one day coming back to play rugby in Ireland and obviously when I was there, playing for Ireland was probably the last thing on my mind,” he added.
“My main focus then was to just keep playing as many games as I could and get that recognition to come back to one of the provinces. Luckily enough Connacht were good enough to take me on board.
“To be honest, I’d like to think I am ready [for international rugby] but it’s up to the coaches now to decide. I’ve played with and against international players for the last two seasons.
“I’d like to think I’m ready for the next step up but I have to respect their decision also and if they don’t feel I’m ready that’s fair and I’ll just go away and work on what needs to be worked on.
“My goals are still the same, I haven’t had to change anything, and we’ll see in the next few weeks, hopefully they might be achieved.”
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