Gerry Thornley: Larmour in line for inclusion in Six Nations squad

Carbery, Keatley, Van der Flier and Murphy all likely to be included too by by Schmidt

 Jordan Larmour: impressive form with Leinster could see him win a place in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the opening two Six Nations games. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Jordan Larmour: impressive form with Leinster could see him win a place in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the opening two Six Nations games. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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Pedigree counts in the European Champions Cup; it always has. Take the 77th-minute decision by Racing to go for another three-pointer rather than seek the fourth try which would have left them in pole position in Pool Three above Munster.

Against another team one ventures Racing might well have done so. It was the smarter play. But quite conceivably, Munster’s record in Europe and three consecutive wins over Racing in the last two seasons prompted Maxime Machenaud, Dimitri Szarzewski and the other decision-makers in the home ranks to take the safer option.

The red shirts may have spooked them.

Entering the last throes of the match, with both teams on three tries, it was conceivable that either side could have ended up with zero, one, four or five points and the ramifications of Sunday’s endgame are significant. 

By not closing out the win when leading with five minutes to go, Munster have probably forfeited home advantage in the quarter-finals. Had they done so, another win over Castres next Sunday would have assured them of a tie in Thomond Park, most probably as second seeds behind Leinster and thus putting them in opposite halves of the draw. It’s still possible, and a Scarlets win at home to Toulon on Saturday evening without a bonus point would open the door for Munster.

Had Munster held on to get the win, Saracens especially, Bath and, at a push, Wasps would have seen their hopes of qualifying as one of the three best runners-up enhanced. Instead it’s conceivable that the holders could be squeezed out unless Toulon win away to the Scarlets or the home side win by more than seven points, thus leaving only Exeter to represent the Premiership in the last eight.

Leinster could well be at home to either Toulon or Saracens in the quarter-finals, with Munster away to La Rochelle and Ulster away to the Scarlets if they beat Wasps on Sunday. Munster’s failure to close out the win in Paris also means that Ulster will be assured of a home quarter-final if they beat Wasps.

An Irish squad of 35-plus will be named on Wednesday for the opening two games of the Six Nations away to France and at home to Italy and it will be all the better for Ireland’s aspirations if every player arrives in  Carton House on Sunday on the back of all four provinces qualifying for the knock-out stages for the first time ever.

It will help no end if there are no more injuries either, to add to a casualty list which now includes Seán O’Brien and Garry Ringrose, as well as longer-term absentees Jared Payne, Rhys Ruddock, Adam Byrne, Luke Marshall, Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip. O’Brien, Ringrose, Ruddock and Byrne are the only players from the original 38-man squad for the Guinness Series currently ruled out through injury.

Unfair reputation

Although Joe Schmidt did not rule out the possibility of Simon Zebo returning to the squad for the Six Nations when omitting him from that November squad, the likelihood is that his impending move to Racing will see him miss out again.

By contrast, Leinster’s selection of Jordan Larmour last Saturday, on the back of his rich vein of form, should see the uncapped 20-year-old named in addition to Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale. Joe Schmidt likes young players to spend time in the squad before being capped but he has an unfair reputation as a conservative coach. As with Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Andrew Porter both last summer and autumn, a talent such as Larmour will surely be brought into the set-up now.

With Stockdale, Earls and Andrew Conway to be retained, the pecking order at Munster and Leinster isn’t doing Darren Sweetnam and Dave Kearney any favours, whereas the rejuvenated Fergus McFadden, last capped against Scotland in 2016, is banging on the door again.

Rory Scannell is also playing some good rugby of late, although Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey were ahead of him last autumn.

Joey Carbery hasn’t played since then, but the fit-again Leinsterman is liable to be included as well as Ian Keatley on the back of his November form and undoubted ability, although Ross Byrne has built up an impressive volume of work.

Similarly, the stock of scrum-halves has rarely been healthier, with four Irish nines starting regularly, and John Cooney is also pushing the incumbent trio hard.

The nine frontrowers from November may well be retained en bloc, even though Stephen Archer has usurped John Ryan at Munster. The leading secondrowers are all in form, namely Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Ultan Dillane and James Ryan, and looked nailed on, leaving Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor and Quinn Roux perhaps vying for one spot.

Of the 61 players used in Ireland’s 11 games last season, a dozen were backrowers. As well as the sidelined O’Brien, Heaslip and Ruddock, Tommy O’Donnell has played little rugby of late, so Josh van der Flier not only looks sure to be recalled after missing November through injury, but is in pole position to start in Paris.  

Dan Leavy is also pressing hard for inclusion, and as well as Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, the highs and lows of Jordi Murphy’s season – during which time he was a late call-up in November and has since agreed to join Ulster next season in a bid to also further his international career – could continue with his return to the fold.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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