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Ireland set to put on a strong battle for the Autumn Nations Cup
NOVEMBER 16 2020
After a disappointing finish to the Six Nations, an out-of-sorts Wales team arriving in Dublin, provided Ireland with an ideal chance, to not only get back to winning ways, but also begin their Autumn Nations Cup campaign on the front foot.

It proved to be an opportunity that Andy Farrell's men grabbed with both hands, as they helped ease the painful memories of the defeat in Paris at the end of last month.

As poor as Wales were at the Aviva Stadium last weekend, it is important not to gloss over the fact that they are reeling since Warren Gatland's departure following last year's World Cup.

That's six defeats on the bounce now, as Wayne Pivac is quickly learning how tough it is to step into the shoes of the country's greatest head coach.

When Farrell took over at the same time from Joe Schmidt, he faced the same unenviable challenge, and for all that Ireland still have a few more levels to go before being considered as one the best teams in the world again, Wales' struggles highlight just how badly things can go.

Just last year, Wales won the Grand Slam before making it to the World Cup semi-final, where they lost out to eventual winners South Africa. Although Ireland are still waiting to break that particular glass ceiling, there were plenty of positives to take from their 32-9 victory last Saturday.

All going well, this will be the only time that the Autumn Nations Cup will be a live tournament, as hopefully, this time next year, the world will feel like a somewhat more normal place again.

The prestige on offer may not be anything like the Six Nations, yet in the long run, it could prove to be a hugely beneficial competition for a team in transition, such as Ireland. Farrell is mindful of that, which is why he was happy to make such sweeping changes from the team who were beaten by France.

Starting the same strongest XV possible over the coming weeks may have generated momentum, and as tempting as that may have been, there must be a long-term plan at play here.

Building squad depth is imperative, and with no world ranking points or prize money on offer in the Autumn Nations Cup, the pressure valve has been released somewhat. That said, if you are Wales, then your backs are now firmly against the wall, and winning is absolutely paramount.

An opening day victory has given Farrell some welcome breathing space, but it is about to get a whole lot more suffocating this weekend, as Ireland return to the scene of two of their most damaging defeats in the last 18 months.

Twickenham has not been a happy hunting ground for Ireland since Schmidt's men landed the Grand Slam in stunning fashion in 2018. The power shift since that unforgettable St Patrick's Day has been enormous, with lingering scars from last year's nightmare still apparent.

Saturday's game against England will be a true test of how far Ireland have come in the short space of time under Farrell, particularly because the Six Nations defeat at his old stomping ground back in February, offered further evidence of Ireland's fall from grace.

Farrell's biggest test this week is making sure his team front up physically and don't allow themselves to be beaten up again by Maro Itoje and Co.

The word “dominant” was used several times by Farrell to describe the manner of last week's victory. We can safely say that it has been quite a while since an Ireland coach was able to draw such a conclusion against an international side of note.

Andrew Porter continues to grow at tighthead in the absence of the injured Tadhg Furlong, while Quinn Roux's powerful scrummaging behind the Leinster prop contributed heavily to the dominance that Farrell was referring to. James Ryan stepped in as Ireland captain for the first time when Johnny Sexton was forced off with a hamstring problem, which was another clear nod to the future.

The Leinster lock is expected to lead Ireland at the next World Cup in France in 2023, and despite the fact that Munster skipper Peter O'Mahony was on the pitch at the same time, Farrell made a point of handing the captaincy responsibility to Ryan.

The pack, led by man-of-the-match Caelan Doris, can take a lot of credit for the win over Wales, but they must front up even more so, ahead of the trip to London. Jamison Gibson-Park benefitted hugely from that solid platform, as the Leinster scrum-half marked his first international start with an excellent performance that was full of slick, snappy service.

The arrival of James Lowe has added a fresh dynamic to Ireland and not only in their attack, but also, in their aggressive approach. Lowe's impressive debut concluded with a deserved late try, which capped an exciting display that proved the Leinster man was born to play at this level.

It will be fascinating to see how Lowe develops on the international stage over the coming weeks, but he, like the rest of his team-mates, face a huge step-up in quality this weekend. Another convincing defeat at Twickenham would be hugely damaging for Ireland, yet on the flip side, a win would properly ignite the Andy Farrell era.

It might not be a do-or-die Six Nations clash, but make no mistake about it, this is a very important game for an Ireland team, who have their sights set on becoming a world force once again. 

- Cian Tracey, Irish Independent Rugby Writer