Gerry Thornley: Connacht the big winners in Six Nations squad

Schmidt embraces green energy with Jack Carty, Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade selected

(Left to right) Jack Carty, Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade have all been called into the Ireland squad for the first time ahead of the Six Nations. Photo: Inpho

(Left to right) Jack Carty, Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade have all been called into the Ireland squad for the first time ahead of the Six Nations. Photo: Inpho

 

In naming three uncapped players, all from Connacht, in the 38-man squad for the opening two rounds of the Six Nations, Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaching team have sent out a clear message that despite a winning, settled squad entering a World Cup year, the door is not closed.

Even at this juncture, form can be rewarded, and while Caolin Blade’s presence in the squad may be at least partially due to the enforced absence of Kieran Marmion, as expected he is deservedly the next scrumhalf on the block.

As there are only four professional teams in Ireland, in joining the returning Conor Murray and John Cooney as one of three scrumhalves in the squad, Blade is the latest reminder that if an uncapped player is starting regularly for his province, he mightn’t be that far away from the Irish squad.

Likewise his Connacht team-mates, halfback partner Jack Carty and centre Tom Farrell. The 26-year-old Carty, who played gaelic football up to minor level with his native county Roscommon and for the Republic of Ireland under-15s soccer team, is having the season of his life.

True to his word that he would improve his goal-kicking, as well as his defence and game management, his running game and inventive, varied kicking game have flourished this season.

Hence he has been included alongside Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery ahead of Ross Byrne, who had been part of the squad to Australia and was an unused sub in the third Test, before winning his first two caps last November off the bench against Italy and the USA.

‘Tight call’

In the statement unveiling the squad for the opening games, at home to England on Saturday fortnight and away to Scotland a week later, Schmidt said: “Ross Byrne is unlucky in an incredibly tight call.”

The 25-year-old Farrell is the third uncapped Connacht man in the squad. He has been tearing it up with his potent carrying and offloading this season, notably in Connacht’s recent encounter at home to Munster.

A product of Castleknock College, Lansdowne and the Leinster academy, it’s incredible to think that Farrell was playing for Bedford in the English Championship only last season. It just goes to shows there can be gems out there.

With his namesake Chris also returning to the squad after injury, the Connacht centre has muscled his way in ahead of Stuart McCloskey and Sammy Arnold, who were both capped in the November window, as well as Rory Scannell.

Connacht’s resurgence this season under Andy Friend’s watch is also reflected in a recall for Ultan Dillane to the squad for the first time since last year’s Six Nations. Granted, this is essentially at the expense of teammate Quinn Roux, but it takes Connacht’s representation up to five.

In addition to Roux, Rob Herring, Finlay Bealham and Dan Leavy are the only other omissions from the forwards named in the squad for the Guinness Series last November, with Schmidt strongly indicating that Leavy will return during the Championship once he has recovered from the calf injury which has sidelined him for the last four weeks.

Dillane is the only forward named yesterday who did not feature in November. The inclusion of Seán O’Brien, who missed out on last year’s Grand Slam campaign in its entirety, suggests he is not far from returning to action since suffering a fractured arm against Argentina. Ditto Iain Henderson after undergoing surgery on a broken thumb.

Doutbful

Pending a fitness update on the rib cartilage injury Peter O’Mahony suffered against Gloucester and which makes him doubtful for Munster’s crunch Heineken Champions Cup pool decider against Exeter next Saturday, he too is named in the squad.

“It’s been great to watch the provincial teams doing so well in recent weeks,” said Schmidt. “With another very competitive round of EPCR this weekend, the following Ireland squad for the first two matches of the Six Nations has been selected, knowing that late changes may be required, depending on how the matches go in the weekend. There have been a number of tight calls across almost every position.”

In further comments designed to keep the door ajar for those who missed out, Schmidt was quoted in the IRFU missive name checking the following players: Bealham, Marty Moore, Stephen Archer, Rob Herring, Denis Buckley, Ed Byrne, Eric O’Sullivan, Roux, Gavin Thornbury, Fineen Wycherley, Kieran Treadwell, Billy Holland, Leavy, Sean Reidy, Tommy O’Donnell, Luke McGrath, Marmion, Ross Byrne, Billy Burns, Rory Scannell, McCloskey, Arnold, Rory O’Loughlin, Adam Byrne, Dave Kearney, Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam.

Whatever about not making the 38-man squad, if a player wasn’t at least referred to, he really is missing out.

The squad will go to Portugal next week for a warm weather training camp.

One final thought: at least seven and possibly more of this 38-man squad will not make the cut for Japan. More than ever before, some seriously good players are going to miss out on the World Cup.

But that’s for another day. For the moment, allowing for the injury clouds hanging over O’Mahony especially and Sexton, and with Schmidt having his fingers crossed for the final weekend of pool matches, Ireland look like going into the defence of their title in reasonably good health.

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