Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has backed Guinness Six Nations debutants Calvin Nash and Joe McCarthy to transfer what they have done in camp onto the big stage against France on Friday night.
Jack Crowley also steps up for his first Championship start, having made his bow as a replacement during the closing stages of last year’s win away to Italy. He dons the number 10 jersey for the team’s first match since Jonathan Sexton’s retirement.
There are three changes to the back-line from Ireland’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand. Sexton and injured duo Mack Hansen and Garry Ringrose are replaced by Crowley, Nash, and Robbie Henshaw respectively.
Ringrose memorably ran in a terrific match-winning try when Ireland hosted France during last season’s Six Nations, but a shoulder injury he picked up when playing for Leinster against Leicester Tigers has sidelined him for this week’s trip to Marseille.
“It’s something that happened in the last game that he played, a bit of a bang on the shoulder, just irritable,” Farrell said of Ringrose’s shoulder issue.
“He was managing it well, going through his rehab and making good progress, but just in retrospect really, just a little too soon.
“He’s flown home, yesterday with another few lads, and he’s into rehab. Hopefully it’s not too long of an injury and back for the next game (against Italy next week). We’ll see how he progresses.”
Nash scored two tries in his last three Investec Champions Cup appearances for Munster, brilliantly collecting a Craig Casey box-kick to romp clear against Toulon, and his consistent form has been rewarded with a second Ireland cap.
Most recently involved for a 19-minute cameo off the bench against Italy before the World Cup, the Limerick native (26) has sharpened up his all-round game, according to Farrell, and is ready for the challenge of facing the world’s fourth-ranked side.
“It’s a reward for him coming into camp, understanding what that job looks like for him within our team, and going away and working on those bits, and he’s been very good at improving most parts of his game, actually.
“I mean it’s a given, isn’t it, regarding his work-rate? His work off the ball and his work with ball in hand and finding a way to make a difference and be that extra link in attack has really come on leaps and bounds.
“All you need in life is an opportunity, and it’s a big one for Calvin.”
The post-Sexton era begins with Crowley in the out-half hotseat. This will be the 24-year-old’s tenth international appearance and he has experience of starting against Australia, Italy, and Samoa in the last 15 months.
He will have a fascinating head-to-head duel with France’s Matthieu Jalibert, who made his Test debut on the night that Sexton’s unforgettable drop goal decided the 2018 clash. Maxime Lucu, Antoine Dupont’s replacement, makes it an all-Bordeaux-Bègles half-back pairing for Friday.
Farrell has every faith that Crowley will play to his potential in the Stade Vélodrome’s intense atmosphere, given what he has been doing in training and the qualities he possesses as a player and as a conductor of both the back-line and the team as a whole.
He’s a confident kid, Jack. Being able to grab hold of the team is tough for young kids, especially with responsibilities like in his position. But he feels very comfortable in being able to do that.
“How you run a week is pretty important, and how you’re making sure that the rest of your team-mates feel like you’re in control.
“He’s obviously learned a lot from Johnny in that regard. Harry (Byrne) is pretty good at that as well, Ciaran Frawley is getting better at that.
“But the only thing that matters is the performance, isn’t it? Taking that preparation that’s been very good in camp, and transferring it to a performance that we all want to see.”
Versatile back Frawley is part of a beefed-up replacements bench that has a six-two split, with Farrell anticipating a heavyweight contest between the packs. If the Skerries man is brought on, he will become Ireland’s third Six Nations debutant on the night.
As ever when France provide the opposition, a bruising battle up front is in prospect. Their tight five is particularly powerful, including giant tighthead Uini Atonio and returning lock Paul Willemse who missed the World Cup due to a thigh injury.
Fresh from his first World Cup experience at the age of 22, Joe McCarthy will continue his climb up the international ladder with his first taste of senior Six Nations rugby. If he can maintain his impressive recent form, he could prove a menace to les Bleus.
Asked about what McCarthy has done to break into the team as the only change to the World Cup quarter-final pack, Farrell admitted: “It’s not post-World Cup, it was during the World Cup as well and before that actually. It’s what we see in training and progression, etc., and what the other lads see also.
“Joe is a young fella that’s on a mission. He’s there to take his chance and his opportunity when he can, and he tends to do that most days.”