Andy Farrell is likely to revert to the vast core of the Irish side which kicked off the Six Nations with a 29-7 win over Wales when unveiling the match-day squad for Saturday's round four match against England at Twickenham (kick-off 4.45pm) this morning.
In addition to the return of captain Johnny Sexton, who has since played only 27 minutes off the bench against Italy after missing the French game with a hamstring twinge, it seems probable that Hugo Keenan, Bundee Aki and perhaps also Andrew Conway will all be restored to the side – all the more so as Farrell said the latter two missed the Italian game in part to rest minor niggles.
Admittedly, they are also close calls with Mack Hansen having taken to Test rugby and proven his ability to play on both wings, while Robbie Henshaw would walk into most sides.
But Conway and Aki did little wrong and plenty right in those opening two games, while James Lowe’s value to this team’s kicking and attacking game makes his selection look cut and dried.
There could be around half a dozen changes to the starting XV in total as up front, the Irish coaching ticket have been obliged to make at least one alteration given the absence of Andrew Porter due to the ankle injury he suffered against Italy and which has sidelined him for an estimated eight weeks.
The odds are that Cian Healy’s experience will be preferred from the start, with David Kilcoyne again held back for his familiar role as an impact replacement.
Of Kilcoyne’s 47 Tests, 34 have been off the bench, and 14 of his 17 games in the Six Nations have also been as a replacement. This is also influenced by Healy’s appearance in front of the media last week. He just looked and sounded like a player who was going to start and had a point to prove.
Having recovered fully from the adductor issue which ruled him out of the Italian game, there’s little doubt if any that James Ryan will be restored to the second row and most probably in tandem again with Tadhg Beirne, as was the case against Wales and France.
Aside from being Ireland’s vice-captain and lineout caller, Ryan has been back to something like his best, especially in Paris. He made 11 tackles that day and has arguably become Ireland’s most imposing tackler in addition to the accuracy of his work at the breakdown.
Beirne is in the form of his life, his skill set being perfectly suited to this team’s evolving brand of running rugby, while also being a reliable lineout operator and having his point of difference in the jackal.
It could be, of course, that he is switched to blindside in order to accommodate the horse power of Iain Henderson against the English pack following the latter’s 80 minute shift for Ulster after missing the Italian game with Covid. But all five of Beirne’s international starts this season, and the final 33 minutes off the bench against New Zealand, have been at lock.
Presuming he stays in the second row, Farrell and co would have had plenty to mull over in the composition of the backrow. The Caelan Doris-Josh van der Flier-Jack Conan trio has been the first-choice starting loose forward combination for both Leinster and Ireland this season up to and including Paris.
But shifting Doris to number ‘8’ against Italy and choosing Conan (who was replaced after 52 minutes in Paris) on the bench looked more pointed than the other five changes, which were all influenced by players being sidelined or coming back into the equation, or in the case of Michael Lowry with one eye on the future.
What’s more, if Josh van der Flier hadn’t maintained his stranglehold on Man of the Match gongs it could just as easily have gone to Doris against Italy. Paris had seen a couple of unusual errors on the ball, but particularly in that first quarter against the Azzurri when it was 15-v-15, Doris looked the best player on the pitch with his footwork, lines of running, strength in contact and skills.
There’s no doubt too that like any other backrower, Doris has more touches on the ball, carries and involvements at ‘8’ than at blindside. The composition of the back row will be interesting.
If Henderson doesn’t start, he will assuredly be restored to the bench, as will Conor Murray’s game know-how and strength for this heavyweight title eliminator.
IRELAND (possible) v England: Keenan; Conway, Ringrose, Aki, Lowe; Sexton (capt), Gibson-Park; Healy, Sheehan, Furlong, Beirne, Ryan, O’Mahony, van der Flier, Doris. Replacements: Herring, Kilcoyne, Bealham, Henderson, Conan, Murray, Carbery, Henshaw.