Ireland eschew drastic changes for Six Nations defence after World Cup setback

Ireland begin the Guinness Six Nations as reigning Grand Slam champions but on the back of familiar World Cup quarter-final disappointment.

Head coach Andy Farrell has kept faith with 26 of the 33 players who ultimately suffered a last-eight defeat to New Zealand in France less than four months ago as he opts for evolution over revolution.

The Englishman, whose squad alterations are enforced by retirements, including that of former captain Johnny Sexton, and injuries, believes “completely cutting the legs off” a system which previously brought sustained success would be detrimental.

He has appointed veteran Munster flanker Peter O’Mahony as his new skipper and is very much focused on immediate challenges, rather than the next World Cup cycle as a whole.

“I was unbelievably proud how we connected with our fans and did it together (at the World Cup) – that for me continues with how we get back on the horse,” said the 2023 World Rugby coach of the year.

“What I’m talking about is being proud of how we go about our business to want to keep evolving our game. The journey continues.

“I think completely cutting the legs off something and starting again can damage not just the team but the individuals within that.

Ireland are the reigning Grand Slam champions
Ireland are the reigning Grand Slam champions (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I could be wrong but that’s my experience of it over the years.”

Ireland once again failed to win a World Cup knockout match, suffering a fourth quarter-final elimination in a row and an eighth overall.

Yet they have been victorious in 29 of their last 32 Tests, including a historic tour triumph over the All Blacks in 2022, and spent a prolonged period at the top of the world rankings.

While Farrell plans to build on existing foundations, he is eager to keep generating competition for places and ensure players do not become complacent.

“I think the best thing you can do for the squad as a coach is stay open minded because if you’re fixed on (selection decisions) then people tend to get downhearted or too comfortable,” said the new British and Irish Lions head coach.

“The pressure that they put on each other is the main thing really because ultimately all you’re trying to do as a professional is get the respect of your peers.”

Ireland’s title defence begins on February 2 against France in Marseille.

Andy Farrell guided Ireland to the Grand Slam in 2023
Andy Farrell guided Ireland to the Grand Slam in 2023 (Brian Lawless/PA)

Munster’s Jack Crowley, who has started just three of his nine Test appearances, is expected to begin as first-choice number 10, with Leinster pair Harry Byrne and Ciaran Frawley, who have only three caps combined, as understudies.

The injury absence of Connacht wing Mack Hansen is a major blow, while front-row forwards Rob Herring and Dave Kilcoyne, fly-half Ross Byrne and versatile back Jimmy O’Brien are also sidelined.

Captain O’Mahony has urged the squad to learn from the World Cup exit at the hands of the All Blacks.

“All the good that we did last year, that’s not gone, far from it,” said the 34-year-old.

“You’ve got a decision to make, do you want that game to make you better? Or do you want to leave it hanging over you?

“Of course we’re going to grab it and be better for it and getting ahead of the game is where you have to be to be competing for championships, which is exactly what we want to do.”

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