Dan Sheehan and Conor Murray have emerged as doubts for Ireland’s eagerly awaited Guinness Six Nations round two showdown against France at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Andy Farrell had been expected to unveil an unchanged starting XV and matchday 23 at around 2pm on Thursday after Jamison Gibson-Park (hamstring), Tadhg Furlong (calf) and Cian Healy (hamstring) had again been ruled out after missing Ireland’s 34-10 win over Wales.
However, Sheehan is rumoured to be awaiting a scan on a hamstring issue, and were he ruled out, then the likelihood is that Rob Herring, his replacement in Cardiff, would be named in the starting line-up.
Rónan Kelleher is back in training after recovering from his hamstring strain but it hadn’t been expected that he would come into matchday 23. Ulster’s uncapped Tom Stewart is the other hooker in the squad.
The rash of hamstring injuries being sustained in training has reached alarming proportions and must be a concern for Farrell.
Were Murray ruled out in addition to Gibson-Park after the 33-year-old’s impressive return to the starting line-up for his 101st cap last Saturday, it would presumably mean a second Test start, and first in the Six Nations, for his fellow Munster scrumhalf Craig Casey. In that case too, the 28-year-old Connacht scrumhalf Caolin Blade would be in line for his second cap off the bench, having been a replacement for the last quarter against the USA in July 2021.
[ Six Nations - Ireland vs France: TV details, kick-off time, team news and more ]
Elsewhere, with Stuart McCloskey having the most productive run of his career in the Irish team, he is expected to be retained in midfield.
After playing in all three of Ireland’s Autumn Series wins over South Africa, Fiji and Australia, 30-year-old Ulster centre was starting his fourth successive Test in the Principality Stadium.
Last Saturday’s game also marked his first Six Nations start since making his debut against England in Twickenham seven years ago, and prior to last autumn his intervening caps had come against Fiji, USA (twice), Georgia and Japan.
A large hint that McCloskey will remain alongside Garry Ringrose is that he was put up in front of the media on Wednesday, and he certainly spoke like a man who knew he had more than an inkling he would be starting.
The so-called Bangor Bruiser is far more than a battering ram, and his passing range and skill set are often the focal point of Ulster’s attacking game. McCloskey’s sumptuous right to left skip pass to James Lowe was a key factor in giving the latter what looked like a pre-planned kick behind into space and earned the early attacking platform from which Caelan Doris scored the opening try in Cardiff.
Although often used as a decoy early on and didn’t make his first carry until the 16th minute, thereafter McCloskey also carried the ball strongly.
Bundee Aki added energy with a turnover and a couple of strong carries to again justify the decision by Farrell and co to use a specialist centre as the number 23. The coaches appear to like bringing on Aki’s ballast as an impact replacement, and this is a role he played twice against New Zealand last summer and most tellingly against Australia last November when scoring Ireland’s breakthrough try.
[ Six Nations: Whatever the scoreline, Ireland v France promises to be a riveting encounter ]
France are expected to announce their side at around 11am on Thursday, and their starting XV is expected to be unchanged from last Sunday’s 29-24 bonus point win over Italy in the Stadio Olimpico. There had been some speculation around the fullback position, and whether Melvyn Jaminet would be recalled at the expense of his Toulouse teammate Thomas Ramos, but it is expected that Fabien Galthié and co will stick with the latter.
However, it is quite possible that they will make two changes among the replacements, with the Toulouse back-rower Francois Cros - who is a strong tackler and good over the ball - replacing Thomas Lavault while the Lyon scrumhalf Baptiste Couilloud will replace Racing’s Nolann Le Garrec.
Both Cros and Couilloud are fit again after coming back from injuries, with Cros an established member of last year’s Grand Slam winning squad and Couilloud previously above Le Garrec in the pecking order as well.
Ireland (possible): Keenan; Hansen, Ringrose, McCloskey, Lowe; Sexton (capt), Murray/Casey; Porter, Sheehan/Herring, Bealham; Ryan, Beirne; O’Mahony, van der Flier.
Replacements: Herring/Kelleher, Kilcoyne, O’Toole, Henderson, Conan, Casey/Blade, Byrne, Aki.
France: Ramos; Penaud, Fickou, Moefana, Dumortier; Ntamack, Dupont (capt); Baille, Marchand, Atonio, Flament, Willemse, Jelonch, Ollivon, Alldritt.
Replacements: Barlot, Wardi, Falatea, Taofifenua, Cros, Macalou, Couilloud, Jalibert.