Ireland’s Jack Conan and Dan Leavy set to start against Italy
Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter in line to make Six Nations debuts from the bench
Jack Conan is expected to make his Six Nations debut against Italy on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium at number eight. Photograph by Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Jack Conan is expected to make his Six Nations debut against Italy on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 2.15) when chosen at number eight, with Andrew Porter in line to do the same off the bench, where he could be joined by the uncapped Jordan Larmour.
With games to come at home to Wales and Scotland, followed by the St Patrick’s Day finale against England at Twickenham, the Italian game affords Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaches a degree of room for experimentation. This is likely to be reflected in the team and replacements to be announced at lunchtime on Thursday, which could well feature a surprise or two.
Conan has won five caps to date, and the big-carrying number eight has scored four tries in his four test starts, against the USA and Japan (twice) on the summer tour, and against Fiji last November. CJ Stander is expected to be named on the bench after his energy-sapping 83-minute workload last Saturday, which featured 24 carries for 40 hard-earned metres, as well as seven passes and eight tackles, although his were the only two missed tackles made by the Irish forwards in the Stade de France.
Another burgeoning young Leinster talent expected to make his first Six Nations start is the 23-year-old flanker Dan Leavy, who made such a big impact as a first-half replacement for Josh van der Flier in Paris. Leavy is likely to start in the absence of the desperately unfortunate Van der Flier who, like the Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont, has learned that his season is over after suffering a non-contact injury when turning on the sodden Stade de France surface.
It says plenty about Ireland’s trademark stock of back-row talent that even despite the absence of the injured Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock, Tommy O’Donnell and now Van der Flier, they can still put together a back-row of Peter O’Mahony, Conan and Leavy, with Stander in reserve, while Jordi Murphy misses out.
As has happened before, it could well be that Cian Healy and Jack McGrath will rotate for this game, such are the fine margins between them and the five-game itinerary over seven weeks. Similarly, it could be that Devin Toner will replace the 21-year-old James Ryan for this game, bearing in mind the latter’s workload on his Six Nations debut last Saturday, when the 21-year-old lock augmented his strong shift in the tight with 15 carries and a dozen tackles, most of them of the highest quality. The highly-regarded Porter, 22, is in line for his Six Nations debut in the expectation that he has been named on the bench ahead of John Ryan, despite having started only four of his 22 appearances for Leinster thus far, against Zebre, Southern Kings, Benetton and Connacht in the Pro14.
The first of those was at loose-head last season, for the former Under-20s star has only been converted to tight-head this season but, like James Ryan, Leavy, Joey Carbery, Larmour, Stockdale and other likely young lads, Porter has evidently been earmarked as one of those who needs to be exposed to test rugby with the 2019 World Cup in mind. Opportunities to do so are not exactly plentiful.
To that end, it was always felt that Larmour’s inclusion in the squad for the opening two games was with a view to blooding him at some point against Italy, whether from the start or later, and this seemingly may well come to pass.
There is a similar need and desire to invest some game time in Joey Carbery, who has seen only 20 minutes of rugby, and that at full-back, since his second test start against Fiji last November was cut short just past the hour.
There’s also a growing belief that he might even start against Italy, but Richie Murphy dropped the broadest of hints on Tuesday that this will not be at full-back, where he has played exclusively for Leinster this season, and indeed has made 12 of his last 14 starts for the province, by confirming he has only been running at out-half in Irish sessions.
“Joey hasn’t had a massive amount of time through the injury and when he did get on for Leinster he came on at fullback. He runs in our team at training at 10; that’s the best preparation for him at the moment. We can’t say when he will get on the pitch this week or how much time he’ll get. We can’t look at it like that, just deal with the game as it comes and see where we go from there.”
This also suggested Carbery will be on the bench, all the more given last Saturday was only the second time that the Johnny Sexton-Bundee Aki-Robbie Henshaw 10-12-13 axis played together.
“I would think that Johnny wants to play every game,” Murphy also said on Tuesday. “I think that every player in that room down there wants to play every game. I don’t think it is a case of wrapping him in cotton wool. I don’t think he needs that. He’s recovered really well from the game and is in good form this morning. He’s ready to go training and ready to play the match at the weekend.”
IRELAND (possible): Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan. Replacements: Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.