Andrew Porter and Chris Farrell in line for first Six Nations starts

Tadhg Furlong likely to be ruled out with hamstring injury

Ireland tighthead prop   Andrew Porter played 76 minutes against Italy at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland tighthead prop Andrew Porter played 76 minutes against Italy at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

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Andrew Porter is set to make his first Six Nations start against Wales in Saturday’s eagerly-anticipated encounter at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 2.15pm) on foot of the Irish team being announced at lunchtime today.

The hugely promising 21 year old is thus in line to win his fifth cap, while Chris Farrell is also expected to be named for his Six Nations debut.

Despite all the positive words coming from the camp about Tadhg Furlong’s progress since pulling up with a hamstring injury in the fourth minute of the win over Italy last Saturday week, it was always likely this game would come too soon for the Lions tighthead.  

Porter made an eye-catching impact off the bench against Italy, scrummaging, carrying and tackling strongly, and has seemingly jumped ahead of John Ryan in the pecking order. Ryan hasn’t been helped by losing his starting place for Munster’s European matches to Stephen Archer. He was replaced by Porter in the match-day squad against Italy after the concession of a late scrum penalty in Paris which Anthony Belleau missed as a precursor to the 41-phase drive which culminated in Johnny Sexton’s match-winning drop goal.

Unlucky

Ryan was a little unlucky in that he had two big scrums before that, both of which Nigel Owens had re-set, before then penalising the replacement Irish tighthead when the French pack engineered a shove which popped him upright. In any event, that seems to be counting against him.

Besides which, Porter has clearly been identified as one for the future, and specifically next year’s World Cup in Japan, judging by the way he was fast-tracked into the senior squad last summer. That also followed a mightily impressive under-age career, notably in an Irish Under-20 team which reached the World Junior Cup final in 2016 and featured two likely team-mates on Saturday in Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan.

Innately strong and yet surprisingly quick for such a big man, 120kg/18 stone 12lbs, Porter is known to squat 350kg, and even fulfils a family tradition by going to the gym for some weightlifting on Christmas Day. Yet he was a loosehead throughout his under-age years, and even played his first seven games there for Leinster last season (all but one from the bench) before being converted to a tighthead in the latter stages of last season, which makes his progress all the more remarkable.

Upgraded to a full contract this season after one year in the Leinster academy, he has made 14 appearances for Leinster as a tighthead this season, albeit only three from the start, and he has yet to start a European Champions Cup match there, but attributes his progress to the work of his respective scrum coaches, John Fogarty at Leinster and Greg Feek with Ireland.

Porter made his Test debut as a replacement against the USA on last summer’s tour, and did so again in the second Test against Japan a fortnight later. He made his first Test start against Fiji last November and then, having been promoted to the bench against Italy ahead of Ryan, actually played more minutes in that game, 76, than in any other senior appearance for Leinster or Ireland to date.

Exciting

In the aftermath of that game, Porter admitted that development was “a big shock”, and laughed off notions that he might be starting two weeks later, before admitting: “I’ll be prepared as best I can. It would be very exciting. I can only dream of starting Test matches for Ireland.”

 Now, it seems this will come to pass.

Chris Farrell with Rory Best and Devin Toner during an Ireland squad session at Carton House, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Chris Farrell with Rory Best and Devin Toner during an Ireland squad session at Carton House, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

As with Furlong, it’s likely this game will also come too soon for Iain Henderson, who was withdrawn at the half-way stage against Italy with a hamstring/quad injury as well. This has at least been offset by the return to fitness of the aforementioned James Ryan, who looks likely to partner Devin Toner.

Cian Healy and CJ Stander, kept in reserve on the bench against Italy, are expected to return, while the only anticipated change in the backline should see Farrell named in place of the injured Robbie Henshaw, as was the case when Farrell won his second cap against Argentina last November a week after his debut against Fiji.

The 24-year-old product of Clogher Valley RFC in Tyrone and Campbell College was restricted to five appearances in three years at Ulster due to the logjam there in midfield, and moved to Grenoble for three seasons in the Top 14 under Bernard Jackman with some success, before relocating to Munster this season.

Known for his strength in contact and strong carries, Farrell’s defensive reads and subtleness on the ball made an impression against Argentina, not least to Joe Schmidt, who last week commented: “I think he showed there’s a bit more to Chris Farrell than a bludgeon – nice soft skills and a tight pass. He’s got a good length in his pass.

“He’s actually got pretty good kicking skills and I thought his defensive acumen on the day against an Argentinian team with the likes of [Joaquín] Tuculet coming into the back line, he closed the space down really well.”

Although Garry Ringrose is fit again after being sidelined for six weeks with an ankle injury, and trained with Ireland on Tuesday, he initially trained with Leinster on Monday. That would indicate he has been earmarked for a return to action with his province against the Southern Kings at the RDS on Friday night before coming into consideration for the Scottish and English games.

Instead, Fergus McFadden is expected to be recalled after Jordan Larmour’s debut against Italy, to a bench also likely to feature Quinn Roux, Jack Conan and Kieran Marmion.  

IRELAND (possible v Wales): R Kearney; K Earls, C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), A Porter; D Toner, James Ryan; P O’Mahony, D Leavy, CJ Stander.

Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, John Ryan, Q Roux, J Conan, K Marmion, J Carbery, F McFadden.

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