The 37-man Irish squad announced on Wednesday for the forthcoming 2022 Guinness Six Nations cannot be described as being in rude health, given a variety of injuries and a distinct lack of game time all round. Then again, there was a similar rustiness prior to the Autumn Series, which didn't go too badly all things considered.
That Andy Farrell can stick with the vast bulk of that squad reflects Ireland's wellbeing as they approach their opening game against defending champions Wales a fortnight from next Saturday on the back of eight successive wins.
So it is that the uncapped duo of Mack Hansen and Michael Lowry, along with the recalled pair of Kieran Treadwell and Jack Carty (who was called up as cover in the week of the final game against Argentina) are the only four additions compared to that November squad. This allows for Robbie Henshaw not being formally named until proving his fitness in time for the finale against los Pumas.
Injuries and a lack of game time have contributed to Ciaran Frawley, Harry Byrne and James Lowe missing out, as well as the seemingly La Rochelle-bound Ultan Dillane – this quartet being the only players in that original 38-man squad last autumn not named this time.
Although he has recovered from his hamstring injury, the young Byrne hasn’t played since winning his second cap against Argentina, and while others in the same boat have been included, he has nothing like the same experience. He simply needs more games, and likewise Frawley.
Lowe is a big loss given his rejuvenation and form in the Autumn Series, when his work rate moved onto a different level, and his try scoring (against both Japan and New Zealand) and big left boot became such an integral part of Ireland’s game. There is no like-for-like replacement.
If that raises a question about the composition of the back three, then Andy Farrell and his assistant coaches must be concerned at the general lack of game time for their bulk suppliers from Leinster and Munster of late, but in particular the issues in the secondrow and at outhalf.
Neither James Ryan nor Iain Henderson have played since Ireland’s win over Argentina in November and there is every possibility that the pair will again be sidelined for their province’s final pool games in the Heineken Champions Cup this weekend.
This is at least partially offset by the form of Tadhg Beirne, after which there is Ryan Baird and Treadwell. Conor Oliver has to have entered the coaches’ conversations in the backrow, where admittedly there is a bunch of candidates staking their claim, but perhaps the unluckiest player to miss out altogether is Ross Molony.
After all, he has supplanted Baird as one of Leinster’s starting locks this season and he’s taken his game to another level. While Treadwell has been knocking on the door longer, and won three caps in 2017 under Joe Schmidt, it’s still a little surprising that he edged out Molony and Fineen Wycherley, who were both in last summer’s squad when the latter earned his first cap.
Joey Carbery’s fitness is perhaps the biggest gamble of all, given he has still not resumed full training with Munster and he is not projected to be fit for the opening game against Wales due to the fractured elbow he suffered in the latter stages of Munster’s win away to Wasps five weeks ago.
Given that and the younger Byrne’s relative lack of rugby, it meant that Carty’s excellent form for Connacht could no longer be ignored, and there must be every chance that he will be on the bench against Wales and quite possibly in Paris a week later as well.
In the heel of the hunt, all being well, the team which will face Wales in just over a fortnight will invariably closely resemble the team which beat New Zealand 29-20 in November, save for maybe two or three changes.
Lowe’s absence ensures a change in the back three, where Keith Earls looks the most viable fit on the left wing. Robert Baloucoune is pushing hard for inclusion, but Andrew Conway was exceptional against the All Blacks, albeit a switch to the left wouldn’t be completely out of the question. Henshaw is liable to come back into midfield, where James Hume is going superbly, but Garry Ringrose’s form has been exemplary.
The aforementioned Ryan and Henderson have been the go-to first-choice lock combination for years but it has been unhinged by injuries to one or both. In tandem with their injury clouds and rustiness, Beirne has been in immense match-winning form for Munster in so many games of late, and he usually goes well against Wales, where he played for two years with the Scarlets.
He has to be rewarded for that form, and it’s unlikely that the Caelan Doris-Jack Conan-Josh van der Flier triumvirate will be broken up.
All in all, that’s not a bad place to be.
A possible 23 against Wales might read: Keenan, Conway, Ringrose, Henshaw, Earls, Sexton, Gibson-Park; Porter, Kelleher, Furlong, Beirne, Ryan, Doris, van der Flier, Conan, with replacements Sheehan, Healy, Bealham, Henderson, O’Mahony, Murray, Carty and Larmour.
Ireland’s 37-man squad for 2022 Six Nations
Hookers: Rob Herring (Ulster) 23 caps, Rónan Kelleher (Leinster) 16 caps, Dan Sheehan (Leinster) 2 caps.
Props: Finlay Bealham (Connacht) 18 caps, Tadhg Furlong (Leinster) 52 caps, Cian Healy (Leinster) 112 caps, Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) 45 caps, Tom O'Toole (Ulster) 2 caps, Andrew Porter (Leinster) 40 caps.
Locks: Ryan Baird (Leinster) 6 caps, Tadhg Beirne (Munster) 25 caps, Iain Henderson (Ulster) 65 caps, James Ryan (Leinster) 40 caps, Kieran Treadwell (Ulster) 3 caps.
Backrows: Jack Conan (Leinster) 22 caps, Gavin Coombes (Munster) 2 caps, Caelan Doris (Leinster) 12 caps, Peter O'Mahony (Munster) 79 caps, Nick Timoney (Ulster) 2 caps, Josh van der Flier (Leinster) 35 caps.
Scrumhalves: Craig Casey (Munster) 4 caps, Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster) 12 caps, Conor Murray (Munster) 92 caps.
Outhalves: Joey Carbery (Munster) 27 caps, Jack Carty (Buccaneers) 10 caps, Johnny Sexton (Capt) (Leinster) 101 caps.
Centres: Bundee Aki (Connacht) 33 caps, Robbie Henshaw (Leinster) 53 caps, James Hume (Ulster) 1 cap, Garry Ringrose (Leinster) 37 caps.
Outside backs: Robert Baloucoune (Ulster) 2 caps, Andrew Conway (Munster) 27 caps, Keith Earls (Munster) 96 caps, Mack Hansen (Connacht) uncapped, Hugo Keenan (Leinster) 16 caps, Jordan Larmour (Leinster) 30 caps, Michael Lowry (Ulster) uncapped.
Ireland’s 2022 Six Nations fixtures
Saturday, February 5th: v Wales, Aviva Stadium (2.15pm) (Live on RTÉ and ITV NI)
Saturday, February 12th: v France, Stade de France (5.45pm local/4.45pm Irish). (Virgin and ITV NI)
Sunday, February 27th: v Italy, Aviva Stadium (3pm) (Virgin and ITV NI)
Saturday, March 12th: v England, Twickenham (4.45pm). (RTÉ and ITV NI)
Saturday, March 19th: v Scotland, Aviva Stadium (4.45pm). (Virgin and ITV NI).
Michael Lowry (23), uncapped
Although 5' 7" and 80 kg, Lowry has flourished at fullback for Ulster of late. Has a lightening change of pace, ridiculously quick feet and a quick mind to match in broken field. His kicking out of hand has improved immeasurably in the last year, he's very brave and has a good work-rate. Can also cover outhalf. In his two-try performance at Northampton, he made 190 metres from 16 carries, beat seven defenders and made three clean breaks.
Mack Hansen (23), uncapped
A free spirit off the field who plays like one on it. A relatively unheralded summer steal from the Brumbies, the Irish-qualified Aussie has quickly proved box office at the Sportsground. Two defensive mistakes, being stepped by Dan Sheehan and charged down for Andrew Conway's try against Munster, have been offset by good reads, recovery tackles and six tries in his first eight Connacht games. Just makes things happen.
Jack Carty (29)
He seemed to carry the can more than most for Ireland's World Cup anti-climax and hasn't played for Ireland since. Suffered for a while, but his rejuvenation demonstrates his resilience and when he plays with confidence and backs himself, as this season, he is simply a hell of a talented footballer with a broad skillset. Few careers are linear and Carty is a stronger person and better player now.
Kieran Treadwell (26)
A product of the Harlequins academy, he qualifies through his Irish mother and won the last of his three caps against Fiji in November 2017. Started this season with renewed hunger to return to the Irish squad and when at his best, as in last Sunday's win at Northampton, Treadwell is an athletic, explosive and quick lock with a high work-rate. Also scrums on the tighthead side and his set-piece work has improved over the last year.
Robert Baloucoune (24)
Of the 10 players in this squad with 10 caps or less, the Enniskillen flyer looks the man most likely to break into the starting team sooner rather than later. Part honed on the Sevens circuit, he's seriously quick and his height enhances his finishing and aerial abilities. Stronger than he looks, with his speed and anticipation he also covers his wing cleverly. Absolutely looks the real deal.