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  • Caolán Scully

Forget 7:1, Ireland Now Has a 6:2 Split Decision

The thing about South Africa is that even when we say we don’t copy them, someone will. The ‘Bomb Squad’ and 6:2 bench split from 2019 sparked a lot of debate, and some inspiration. It wasn’t just the Springboks who used this tactic either. The French national side have used this bench split more often than not, helped by versatile halfbacks and flankers, while Munster, under Johann Van Graan often switched to this. Now, four years since their crowning glory, another friendly rival could be about to take inspiration in order to take down the Boks. Step forward, Ireland.

Andy Farrell’s men have evolved to a happy-go-lucky, fluid, and exciting attacking side in recent years, but unlike Joe Schmidt’s reign, this team are open to adaption. They might be built on a Leinster fuelled cohesion, but their ‘next man up’ mantra has rarely failed. Guys like Dan Sheehan and Jimmy O’Brien announced themselves on the international stage when relied upon, and most recently so too has Joe McCarthy.

Leinster’s 22-year-old second-row prospect earned his first Ireland call-up after just a handful of caps for his native province, with many citing his size and power. His first full cap in green came last November in the middle of an injury hit season, so his recall to the World Cup training squad ahead of Munster stalwart Jean Kleyn raised more than a few eyebrows. Now, after featuring in three of Ireland’s four games this window, the former Blackrock schoolboy has shown why Paul O’Connell and Andy Farrell rate him so highly.

His most recent showing in Ireland’s 82-8 victory over Romania, allowed Ireland to rotate Tadhg Beirne into blindside flanker, with Peter O’Mahony moving to openside. Even if this was just a Tier 2 opposition rotation, it did open the door to the question: are Ireland considering a 6:2 split against the powerhouse of South Africa? With McCarthy impressing and Beirne and O’Mahony in imperious form, it’s starting to feel like Ireland are trying to fit all the pieces together, following this selection headache.

If McCarthy edges ahead of Iain Henderson to start, it would be risky but it could just work. Yet that doesn’t solve the puzzle, it simply lays down a corner piece. Starting McCarthy would leave Farrell with a four-into-three call between Beirne, O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris. All of whom have been undroppable for Ireland in recent years. Then you add into the equation Iain Henderson, who captained Ireland twice in the warm-ups, and Jack Conan, who is returning from injury. Who would be a coach?

It’s certainly an embarrassment of riches in Ireland’s historical strongest position. Ryan Baird, who I have not mentioned yet, has also fallen in and out of favour; but has the profile to replace Beirne as a 4/6 hybrid option. So now that we have the runners and riders, what are the options? Ireland could restore the familiar Beirne-Ryan pairing, opening the door to the ever-present O’Mahony-van der Flier-Doris back row combo, with McCarthy, Henderson, Baird and Conan fighting for places on the bench.

Should McCarthy, or Ulster powerhouse Henderson start, Beirne would be set to move to six, but who would be on the other flank? Josh van der Flier is more powerful, but O’Mahony’s set-piece and breakdown work is second to none. If you are going for raw power, you would probably start the 2022 World Player of the Year van der Flier, while holding O’Mahony in reserve. That said, Ireland’s lineout has struggled to fire of late, so it might be more useful to start the Munster captain, and spring the galvanised Leinster openside from the bench.

The drawbacks are the unknowns, as Ireland have rarely gone for this abrasive strategy. Beirne has been almost exclusively a lock option for Ireland with one start at blindside for Ireland since March 2021, with five starts there for Munster in the same period. O’Mahony has been the back-up openside in the squad of late, but unlike Beirne, has played 11 times at openside in two and a half years. Ireland and Paul O’Connell will be sure to understand the trade-off of starting these two for their jackal and line-out threats, with the added intangible evidence of their big game ability.

Doing so would mean holding back Josh van der Flier to the bench, a shirt he rarely occupies. Then you must factor in the question marks surrounding Joe McCarthy’s experience and Jack Conan’s foot injury.

Ireland could answer all the debates by reverting to type when they name their team to play South Africa a week from Thursday, but there is no doubt that this 6/2 split will remain a live option. Andy Farrell is known to be a coach who trusts ‘his guys’, but for once he might forgo cohesion in favour of fighting fire with fire. We all know of Rassie Erasmus’ antics, but if Farrell decides to tackle the holders head on, then this game could be the laying down of a major gauntlet. To beat the reigning champions in the pool stages to potentially take top spot, paving a kinder route to the final; all the while beating them at their own game as well as your own usual panache. Well, that would be the result of champions.


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