Six Nations 2023: Stuart McCloskey set to get nod in Ireland midfield for Wales game

The return of Johnny Sexton and James Lowe likely to be the only changes from the win over Australia

Stuart McCloskey appears set to fill the void left by the absence of Robbie Henshaw when Andy Farrell unveils the Irish team on Thursday to face Wales in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations opener against Wales on Saturday.

The 30-year-old Ulster centre started all three Autumn Series Tests against South Africa – when forced off after an impressive 25-minute return after 16 months away from the international arena – Fiji and Australia.

McCloskey partnered Garry Ringrose against the Springboks and, after Henshaw departed in the sixth minute with a recurring hamstring problem against Fiji, did so for the remainder of the Fijian game, as well as the November finale against Australia.

Remarkably, if he does start against Wales, it will be McCloskey’s first Six Nations game since he made his debut, all the way back in February 2016 against England at Twickenham. Playing well in the eyes of most observers at the time, he would have to wait 21 months for his next cap against Fiji.


Admittedly, his career has coincided with that of two Lions centres in Henshaw and Bundee Aki, as well as Ringrose, and whereas they all bring an ability to play at both inside and outside centre, McCloskey is more of a specialist ‘12′.

Elsewhere, it is a measure of how settled this Irish team has become that conceivably the only two changes from the starting XV in the hard-earned 13-10 win against the Wallabies last time will see the return of James Lowe and Johnny Sexton for Jimmy O’Brien and Jack Crowley.

Having been an ever-present in the New Zealand series, Lowe missed the November internationals due to a calf injury he sustained in pre-season training with Leinster. Ireland missed his game-breaking abilities in their three autumnal wins and as he demonstrated upon his return with Leinster, Lowe’s ability to carry hard into contact and offload is arguably unrivalled by any other Irish player.

Sexton withdrew less than an hour before kick-off against Australia and if less so than Tadhg Furlong, who has only played 36 minutes in one game off the bench for Leinster since those November Tests, his lack of minutes is a concern, but he has invariably delivered after extended lay-offs before.

That said, the starting pack which started all three Tests in New Zealand and the November wins over both the Springboks and the Wallabies seems likely to remain unchanged again.

There remain some interesting selections on the bench, even if the hamstring strain Rónan Kelleher sustained in the squad’s Portuguese training camp looks set to rule him out of action.

The returning Dave Kilcoyne is pushing Cian Healy for a place among the replacements, where it could well be that Farrell and his assistants will opt for some of the experienced options available to them, such as Iain Henderson, Jack Conan and Conor Murray.

The competition as backup to Sexton between Crowley and Ross Byrne, who is back in favour after bridging an 18-month gap from the Test arena by landing the difficult 45-metre clutch penalty to beat Australia, is an interesting one.

Again, it would no surprise to see Farrell and co opt for Byrne’s greater experience and make his recall to the squad more meaningful.

There are a variety of contenders for the number 23 jersey, be it Jimmy O’Brien, whose versatility saw him play in three different positions in the Autumn Series, Keith Earls and Aki.

The latter has played relatively little rugby this season, his seven appearances amounting to 375 minutes in total, but based on previous selections when Aki has been available, the Irish coaches have shown a liking for picking the Connacht centre as an impact replacement, even after lengthy absences.

This was the case for the first and second Tests in New Zealand, and against Australia, when Aki was sprang from the bench to score the winning try.

IRELAND (possible v Wales): Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); James Ryan (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times