Fortune favours the brave, or so the saying goes.
That’s certainly what Andy Farrell will be hoping when Ireland resume their quest for the 2020 Guinness Six Nations title against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
In naming his first team since the global coronavirus pandemic put the Championship on hold, Farrell has been bold and selected Jacob Stockdale at his largely untested position full-back.
While the 24-year-old has played most of his rugby at 15 since rugby returned in August, it is not a position he has occupied for his country since bursting on the scene in 2017.
But only two bonus-point wins will likely do for Ireland if they are to reclaim the title they last won in 2018 and Farrell has decided that it’s now or never and rolled the dice.
He will not be the only one counting on the rugby gods smiling down on him, though, with Franco Smith also taking a risk with his selection for the Azzurri’s trip to Dublin.
FARRELL HAS FAITH IN STOCKDALE
With Ireland’s most decorated player Rob Kearney retiring from international duty and Jordan Larmour out injured, Farrell was always going to have a decision to make at No.15.
Hugo Keenan and Andrew Conway have both shown themselves to be capable in the role for their clubs but only the latter has played in that position for Ireland – and only a handful of times.
Both players will start against Italy but will do so from the wing, with Keenan making his Ireland debut, as Farrell has instead decided to put his trust in Stockdale for the encounter.
It’s a bold move from Farrell for such an important game. While an experienced international, Stockdale is still finding his feet in the role for Ulster and that means there is a level of risk.
Stockdale’s performances for Dan McFarland’s side in recent months have been encouraging but the international stage has the tendency to expose any weakness.
And the 28-cap star reverted to his usual wing position for the province’s biggest games since the restart – the PRO14 final loss to Leinster and Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse.
But a fresh start could be just what the doctor ordered for Stockdale, whose meteoric rise has stalled somewhat since he was crowned Player of the Championship in 2018.
NEW APPROACH FOR FARRELL
Farrell certainly thinks the change in position could be beneficial for Stockdale.
“We’ve been very impressed with Jacob, I think he’s learning the trade pretty quickly there in the backfield. He’s learning how to adapt and get himself stronger in that position,” he said.
“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.”
In fact, the selection of Stockdale at full-back is indicative of Farrell’s overall new approach to his own role. His team to face Italy is one much more in his own mould.
Before lockdown, Farrell did not stray too far from the template left behind by Joe Schmidt as Ireland opened their campaign with wins over Scotland and Wales before losing to England.
That does not appear to be the case this time around, however. With Stockdale at No.15 and debuts given to Will Connors and Keenan, Farrell is starting to look to the future.
The experienced heads are still in there – Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, CJ Stander – yet this Ireland side is pretty punchy on paper. That said, the proof is in the pudding.
GARBISI GAMBLE FOR SMITH
If the selection of Stockdale at full-back seemed brave from Farrell, then Smith’s decision to pick 20-year-old Paolo Garbisi at fly-half may have just trumped him.
While Garbisi has hit the ground running at Benetton since joining initially as a permit player from Petrarca Padova in June, he has only made three appearances at PRO14 level.
He has started both of Benetton’s games so far in the 2020/21 campaign and starred for the Italian side in Round 1, scoring 14 points – including a try – as they narrowly lost to Ulster.
Another ten points against Leinster in the second round means he already has 24 for the season, second only to Wales international and Scarlets star Leigh Halfpenny in the standings.
But he will now test himself up against Sexton in Rugby’s Greatest Championship, forming part of a young Italy side with an average age of 25.6 years – with two uncapped players on the bench.
The Azzurri are yet to taste success in the 2020 Championship but Smith is clearly building for the future – and with Garbisi in the side, we could well see fireworks in Dublin on Saturday.