Head coach Andy Farrell says Ireland aspire to move up the “pecking order” after admitting England and France are favourites for the Guinness Six Nations.
The Irish were forced to settle for third place in the 2020 competition having lost to Eddie Jones’ eventual winners at Twickenham in February and been beaten by Les Bleus in Paris at the end of October.
Farrell, who has now had a full year in the hot seat, insists his side are not far behind the expected Championship frontrunners but acknowledges that improvements are required.
📄 𝗦𝗶𝘅 𝗡𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗦𝗾𝘂𝗮𝗱 𝗔𝗻𝗻𝗼𝘂𝗻𝗰𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁 🟢
Head Coach Andy Farrell has named a 36-man Ireland squad for the upcoming #GuinnessSixNations, including uncapped players Craig Casey and Tom O'Toole 🙌#ShoulderToShoulder#IrishRugbypic.twitter.com/wPrUwsT2K1
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 25, 2021
“My job as a head coach is to make the team as good as they possibly can be, to play to our potential,” said Farrell.
“There’s a pecking order at this moment in time where two teams are going in as favourites and we aspire to be that. I suppose that comes from hard work and performing under pressure.
“We want to be back up there in that type of light come the end of this tournament.”
Farrell hopes to have Ireland in contention for glory when reigning champions England visit Dublin on the final weekend.
Asked about the current gap between his side and their two main title rivals, the Englishman replied: “We’re not far (behind) at all.
Wales v IRELAND (February 7)
IRELAND v France (February 14)
Italy v IRELAND (February 27)
Scotland v IRELAND (March 14)
IRELAND v England (March 20)
“We made a couple of comments at the end of the autumn that we know where we’re going and we know how far we are from being there.
“We thought we made good strides and we’re nearly at where we want to be.
“But this is it now. The Six Nations is a fantastic competition and it’s there to be won by a number of teams but to do that there are a few things we need to keep getting better at.
“The question has been dealing with the big games; you’ve got to get through the first game, the second game to assess where you’re at before you start talking about the last game, which is where we want to be to try and compete to win a competition.”
Ireland begin the tournament away to Wales on Sunday, February 7.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 27, 2021
Captain Johnny Sexton hopes to be fit to lead his country in Cardiff after insisting his latest injury is “not major”.
Fly-half Sexton, who suffered hamstring problems at the back end of last year, limped off during Leinster’s PRO14 win over Munster on Saturday.
“Any time you get a little niggle like that it’s very frustrating because I trained hard to make sure that didn’t happen and it did at the time I didn’t want it to happen, which is somewhat typical,” said the 35-year-old.
“It’s not major and hopefully I will be back training by the end of the week and hopefully be fit for the Wales game.
“I was in a good place before the Munster game, so I won’t let it get me down too much and just get back on the horse and hopefully I will be firing next week.”
Ulster back Jacob Stockdale was the notable absentee from the 36-man squad announced on Monday.
Farrell expects Stockdale to miss the opening two games of the tournament with a knee issue but feels he may be ready to return for the trip to Italy in round three.
“He is progressing well. It’s nothing too serious. But he has a bit of bone bruising, I understand, on his kneecap and bone bruising tends to take a bit of time to settle down,” said Farrell.
“He probably won’t be available for the first two games and fingers crossed he’s back up and running midway through the competition.”
Meanwhile, experienced Leinster prop Tadhg Furlong was perhaps a surprise selection, having not played for almost a year due to back, calf and hamstring problems.
🤩 𝗛𝗘'𝗦 𝗕𝗔𝗖𝗞! 🟢
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 25, 2021
Farrell revealed Furlong was feeling “fit” and “strong” and hopes the player can continue his rehabilitation by playing for Leinster against Scarlets on Saturday.
“There’s a natural progression that needs to happen for Tadhg to be physically and mentally right and to earn the right to be available for Wales,” said the coach.
“Speaking to Tadhg yesterday, he was feeling good, feeling fit, strong, meeting all the requirements.
“He feels in good spirits so hopefully we get him through to the end of the week, get him some minutes under his belt for Leinster, if selected, and then the plan would be that he comes back into camp on Sunday with us and we can assess where he’s at.”