Ireland head coach Andy Farrell backed Jacob Stockdale to flourish at full-back as he called for a “dynamic” and “ruthless” display against Italy in their Guinness Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Ireland are looking to claim a bonus-point win which would lift them to the top of the Six Nations table ahead of the final round of fixtures next weekend. Farrell’s team play France in Paris on the final day and Farrell, who took over from Joe Schmidt following Ireland’s disastrous World Cup last autumn, is keenly aware of the need to inject some momentum into his tenure.
After overseeing two wins, against Scotland and Wales, in his first two games, Ireland suffered a sobering 24-12 defeat by England at Twickenham just prior to shutdown.
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Eight months on from that performance, the scenery has changed somewhat. Farrell has handed debuts on Saturday to Leinster flanker Will Connors and to wing Hugo Keenan, while the international retirement of British & Irish Lions full-back Rob Kearney and an injury to Jordan Larmour means Stockdale moves to full-back where he played much of his age-grade rugby.
Farrell is confident that the 24-year-old Ulsterman, who made a sensational start to his international career in 2018 before going badly off the boil last year, in common with many of his team mates, can flourish at 15. "We've had quite a few sessions under our belt now so we have looked at different combinations and we've been very impressed with Jacob," Farrell said.
"He is learning the trade pretty quickly in the back field. We think he has all the attributes to push forward in that position and there will be elements of his game we need to keep pushing forward. What you don't see on the wing with Jacob from time to time is his skill level.
"He has got great vision; he is able to see things and he has great hands as well.
"He hits a brilliant line and you don't always get to do that from the wing. Hopefully we can get him involved as much as we can."
Otherwise, there is a familiar feel to the team with captain and fly-half Johnny Sexton playing outside long-time half-back partner Conor Murray, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose in the midfield, and Andrew Conway on the opposite wing to Keenan. Up front, Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Andrew Porter make up the front row while James Ryan and Tadgh Beirne are paired at lock. In the back row, Caelan Doris is named at blindside, Connors at openside and CJ Stander at No 8.
Farrell said his team were aware of the need to lift spirits at a time of national crisis, with the game set to be played in an empty stadium due to coronavirus. "We are desperate to help lighten the mood but we can't put any more pressure on our shoulders,” the Englishman said.
"How we lighten the mood is look after our own back yard and make sure that the performance is fitting for what people want to see.
"I hope that you see an energy in defence that is pretty ruthless. I hope that you see a dynamism in our contact skills that gets the ball back. I hope you see a set-piece that is one that is aggressive and going after them.
"On the back of that, we hope to get some opportunities to play and be clinical. That's what we're hoping for but obviously the Italians will have something to say about that, knowing Franco [Smith, Italy head coach] and the way that he wants to play.”
Ireland XV (to face Italy): J Stockdale, A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki, H Keenan, J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, A Porter, T Beirne, J Ryan, C Doris, W Connors, CJ Stander
Replacements: D Heffernan, E Byrne, F Bealham, U Dillane, P O'Mahony, J Gibson Park, R Byrne, R Henshaw