Ireland v England: Aki and Stockdale could be restored for finale

Andy Farrell forced to make changes for Saturday with Ryan and Ringrose ruled out

Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale congratulate Bundee Aki after he scored a try  in the Guinness Six Nations Round 4 game against Italy at Aviva Stadium on October 24th, 2020. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale congratulate Bundee Aki after he scored a try in the Guinness Six Nations Round 4 game against Italy at Aviva Stadium on October 24th, 2020. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Bundee Aki and Jacob Stockdale look set to be restored to the Ireland team for Saturday’s 2021 Guinness Six Nations finale against England at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 4.45pm) when the team is announced on Thursday afternoon.

Andy Farrell and his assistant coaches have been forced into making two changes due to James Ryan suffering his second head injury of the tournament and the ankle injury which has ruled out Garry Ringrose.

The likelihood is that Aki will be restored to inside centre with the in-form Robbie Henshaw shifting to 13 as they revive their old Connacht midfield partnership.

Just when the Henshaw-Ringrose combination were on the verge of finally completing a Championship in harness, the midfield jinx has struck again, but at least the Aki-Henshaw partnership has familiarity too.

Furthermore, Aki has been in good form with Connacht and, after six weeks – on and off – in camp with the rest of the Irish squad without any game time, he will assuredly be straining at the leash for his first Test since the Autumn Nations Cup play-off game against Scotland last December. This certainly appears a likelier option than installing Chris Farrell at outside centre or promoting Stuart McCloskey.

It also seems quite conceivable that Farrell and co will make one other change at left wing in light of James Lowe’s defensive difficulties. Lowe has provided plenty of go-forward, whether working in the tightest of touchline corridors or when brought in off his wing for strike moves, and he has carried for considerably more metres (433) than any other player in the Championship.

Flawed

He has also provided a long left-footed kicking option, so much so that he has kicked 23 times out of hand in Ireland’s four matches to date. Alas, Lowe’s flawed tackling technique has also been exposed, with the winger missing seven of his 17 tackles. Two of these, against Brice Dulin in the French game and Huw Jones last Sunday, led to tries and compounded a couple of defensive mis-reads in the defeat by Wales.

While dropping Lowe will be a setback for the player, one imagines that – a little reluctantly – Farrell and the defence coach Simon Easterby feel it’s something they must do. With Stockdale having proven his fitness in two outings for Ulster, his return would continue to provide a left-footed kicking option as well as his excellent strike rate and abilities in the air, even if he’s had his defensive issues in the past as well.

The secondrow jinx has also struck once more in preventing the Ryan-Iain Henderson partnership from having an extended run together. Strong consideration will have been given to the idea of promoting the 21-year-old Ryan Baird for his first Test start after two eye-catching cameos off the bench in Ireland’s wins away to Italy and Scotland, but it would be quite a gamble to pitch him in from the start against Maro Itoje et al.

Logical

A more logical and proven solution would be to re-insert Tadhg Beirne to the secondrow alongside Henderson, as was the case for the second-round game against France, and restore Peter O’Mahony to blindside now that he has completed his “three meaningful games” – ie five-week – suspension for that red card against Wales on the opening weekend.

It was in this corresponding fixture four years ago, when O’Mahony was a late promotion to the starting team, that he produced a man-of-the-match performance in a 13-9 win which denied England the Grand Slam and propelled the Munster man into the Lions squad. No less than Aki, O’Mahony will be straining at the leash for Saturday’s kick-off and it’s hard to believe he won’t be starting.

There’s a distinct possibility that another experienced Munsterman will be restored to the starting team in Conor Murray. Granted, one of the reasons given for not selecting Murray at 9 last week after overcoming the hamstring issues which ruled him out of the French and Italian games, was that he hadn’t played for five weeks.

The curious decision to leave him on the bench for 80 minutes thus means he hasn’t played in six weeks; yet, no less than Stockdale, Aki and O’Mahony, the Lions scrumhalf will be itching for this game, and he also looks tailor-made for it.

IRELAND (possible) v ENGLAND: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Will Connors, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rónán Kelleher, David Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.

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