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Gerry Thornley: Ciarán Frawley’s versatility may finally work in his favour as Ireland search for new fullback

Hugo Keenan is likely to be ruled out of Saturday’s game against Wales, and Frawley now looks best placed to fill in for his provincial team-mate

Presuming, as seems highly likely, that Hugo Keenan is this week ruled out of an Irish international due to injury for the first time since making his debut in the first rearranged 2020 Six Nations game behind closed doors against Italy, we can be sure of one thing. Andy Farrell will have enthusiastically embraced the challenge entailed and maintain that this is a positive for the team.

Yet while no one is indispensable, or at any rate no player should be, by the same token, if there is one player harder to replace than anyone else in this Irish squad, it is probably Keenan.

The fullback emerged from relatively anonymity at Leinster when rugby resumed in 2020 in echo chambers after a stint with the Irish Sevens. He earned four of his first six caps on the wing in that curiously understated, yet highly effective and virtually error-free way of his, before swiftly becoming a mainstay of the side at fullback.

No player has played more minutes (2,916) for Ireland in Farrell’s tenure as head coach than the ever-reliable, 36-times-capped Keenan. He has started 32 of Ireland’s last 36 Test matches since February 2021, all of them at fullback. He has literally been the first name on the team sheet in more ways than one.


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So many of his performances go under the radar because he is invariably error-free. On the opening night in the cauldron of the Stade Vélodrome, the ball didn’t come his way too often, but he made three wonderful defensive reads and backed them up with perfect tackle technique.

But for Keenan drifting on to Damian Penaud from Gaël Fickou’s pass in the opening exchanges, who knows how differently that night might have panned out.

Against Italy, it was Keenan’s mark, quick tap and counterattack which set home team and the quiet home crowd alight in the first half; ditto with his call to Craig Casey to eat up the ground, gather the scrumhalf’s chip and again put Ireland on the attack in the second half.

Keenan has been Mr Dependable. Until this week.

His loss wouldn’t be so acute were it not for Jimmy O’Brien and Mack Hansen being sidelined for lengthy spells with, respectively, a neck injury and dislocated shoulder. O’Brien deputised for his good friend Keenan in the last three games which the latter has missed, against Fiji in November 2022 and the World Cup warm-up games against Italy and Samoa.

One could only feel sympathy for O’Brien watching on from the RDS stands in Leinster’s win over Benetton last Saturday. This week would have been his opportunity.

While based on less evidence, Hansen, such a natural footballer, would have been an intriguing alternative judging by his performance when switched to fullback after seven minutes in Connacht’s 24-22 defeat at home by Leinster last December. His playmaking and vision opened up the Leinster defence.

Leinster won by dint of a dramatic try with the last play of the game by Ciarán Frawley, which is ironic on a couple of levels. There was quite a clarion call at the time for the 26-year-old to be given a run at outhalf, yet that was Frawley’s third try of the season for Leinster, and all of them at fullback.

And Frawley now looks both best placed and best equipped to play at fullback for Ireland next Saturday against Wales.

The debate has always raged as to Frawley’s best position, be it outhalf, inside centre or fullback. He won all 10 of his caps for the Ireland Under-20s in the 2017 Six Nations and 2017 Junior World Championships in midfield.

He has perhaps been a victim of his versatility ever since, for 34 of his 79 Leinster caps have been off the bench. Of his 45 starts for Leinster, 25 have been in midfield, with 12 at outhalf and just eight at fullback. Yet two of his starts at fullback were last season and a further six have been this season. He has become Keenan’s understudy at Leinster, so why not Ireland? Things often follow that way after all.

Frawley is a very good, natural footballer, and while he wouldn’t have Keenan’s pace, he is no slouch. And his physical strength, kicking game and ability to operate as a second playmaker would make him a good fit at fullback.

Starting there at Twickenham, especially given England’s emphasis on their kicking game and Freddie Steward’s prowess in the air (where the English fullback is peerless) would be a different ask. But that would go for any of the other alternatives.

Tellingly, when Keenan went off injured against Italy, Farrell opted to send on Harry Byrne rather than Jordan Larmour, and switch Jack Crowley to fullback. Larmour deservedly earned a long-awaited recall and first cap in almost three years against Italy, and he apparently practices his aerial skills assiduously, but Farrell and co will also have Steward and Twickenham in mind this week.

Furthermore, of Larmour’s 99 Leinster caps, 29 have been at fullback, but only once in the last three years, and that was almost a year ago.

Crowley at 15, with the younger Byrne at 10, looks like a more credible option, therefore. But it would be an awful shame to deny Crowley more game time at outhalf, where he has played some lovely rugby in the two wins to date. He is a daring No 10 who seems to relish taking the ball to the opposition’s faces and has the footwork, strength and passing/offloading range to unhinge defences too.

All things being equal, continuing the investment in the 24-year-old at outhalf in the post-Sexton era looks far preferable to moving him around.

Although James Lowe has played a little at fullback for the Maori All Blacks, this wasn’t a huge success against the Lions and he hasn’t played there since. So, as with Crowley, though even more so, why make two changes when one will do? Lowe knows his role on the left wing inside out and similarly, à la Larmour, Jacob Stockdale has long since effectively become a specialist winger.

Starting Frawley at fullback looks like the most seamless solution of those available, and he has the skill set to flourish there. Maybe, having been something of a victim of his versatility until now, Frawley will this week become a beneficiary more than ever before.