Ireland v France: Henderson set to replace Ryan with Ruddock to start

Ruddock to come in for first Six Nations start in place of suspended Peter O’Mahony

James Ryan looks set to be ruled out due to the head injury which forced him off in Cardiff. Photograph: Inpho

James Ryan looks set to be ruled out due to the head injury which forced him off in Cardiff. Photograph: Inpho

 

Six Nations: Ireland v France

Kick-off: 3pm, Sunday. Venue: Aviva Stadium. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 2.30pm. On TV: Live on Virgin Media One and ITV.

It’s been over a decade since he made his test debut for Ireland at the age of 19. He’s played for his country 26 times in total. He made his Six Nations debut off the bench seven years ago. He scored a try and was man of the match in his second start in a win over South Africa in 2014. He’s captained Ireland seven times, on each occasion to victory.

Now, finally, at the age of 30, Rhys Ruddock is in line to start his first Six Nations game when, on Friday, Andy Farrell announces the side to face France on Sunday at the Aviva Stadium.

If at first you don’t succeed and all that.

In, and mostly out, of Irish squads since last playing at test level in the World Cup, Ruddock has forced his way into the frame on merit after a run of consistently fine form for Leinster. Looking sharp, fit and in form, Ruddock became the first man to win the Leinster player of the month accolade in three successive months (October, November and December). Although this is undoubtedly a step up, no player will relish the occasion, fans or no fans, more than Ruddock.

This could one of two changes forced upon Farrell and his assistant coaches due to Peter O’Mahony’s suspension and, it seems, the possible unavailability of James Ryan due to the head injury which forced him off in the 25th minute of last Sunday’s defeat by Wales in Cardiff.

In that scenario, Iain Henderson, who performed so creditably as Ryan’s replacement given he had not played since the Autumn Nations Cup, would presumably start alongside Tadhg Beirne in the second-row.

In contrast to Ryan, all the indications this week - not least from the player himself - are that Johnny Sexton will have completed all his return to play protocols in time to captain the side again.

Apart from the two enforced changes, Andy Farrell is expected to keep faith with the rest of the starting XV.
Apart from the two enforced changes, Andy Farrell is expected to keep faith with the rest of the starting XV.

Otherwise, it would be no surprise to see Farrell keep an unchanged side on the premise that had they been able to play the 80 minutes-plus with 15 men, rather than the first 14 minutes, Ireland would have beaten Wales, and even with 14 players played themselves into winning positions.

That said, there must have been a debate about the back three, or more specifically the wingers, given Jordan Larmour looked dangerous after replacing Keith Earls and James Lowe was at least partially at fault for the concession of the two Welsh tries.

However, Earls began strongly and brings experience to that back three, while it was interesting to hear Farrell hail Lowe’s long-distance punting, which definitely adds something extra to Ireland’s kicking game. Add in how he was used as a strike runner off starter plays, and his undoubted finishing abilities, and it seems likely they will persist in the player in the fervent hope that he improves his awareness and decision-making in defence.

The manner Robbie Henshaw franked his recent strong form with his performance last week alongside Garry Ringrose leaves no opening for Bundee Aki.

Up front, the way Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Andrew Porter started the game, along with the solidity of the set-pieces, and the impact off the bench of David Kilcoyne, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong, would presumably leave Farrell and Paul O’Connell of a mind to leave well enough alone.

However, there is apparently a slight injury concern over Kilcoyne, which would also explain why Ed Byrne has been retained in the squad this week.

Similarly, the retention of Ryan Baird in the squad is another signal that Ryan may well be ruled out, and with Quinn Roux another absentee from the five locks originally chosen in the 36-man squad, that would leave Baird and Ultan Dillane contesting a place on the bench.

Although Jack Conan was another to be added to the squad at the start of the week, he probably has some ground to make up on the other loose forwards in the squad, leaving Will Connors to again cover the back-row on the presumption that Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander are retained in the starting XV.

Ruddock’s possible place in the team is, of course, as a consequence of O’Mahony’s suspension following the red card he received against Wales which, at the least, was a tad curious in its wording.

The disciplinary committee of Mike Hamlin (England), Frank Hadden (Scotland) and Val Toma (Romania), decreed that O’Mahony’s act of dangerous play entailed reckless contact with the head of Tomas Francis and that the entry point was mid-range, ie six weeks. In reasoning that O’Mahony was entitled to a 50 per cent reduction of sanction in mitigation, they handed him a suspension of “three meaningful matches”.

But this amounts to five weeks, in effect, and the “three meaningful matches” incorporates Ireland’s Six Nations games against France, Italy and Scotland, leaving O’Mahony eligible to return for the week of the final game against England.

That the committee seemingly deemed Munster’s Guinness Pro14 game away to Edinburgh tomorrow week not to be meaningful arguably goes beyond their remit. In any event, word is there may be an appeal coming.

Ireland v France (possible): Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter; Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne/Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane/Ryan Baird, Will Connors, Jamison Gibson-Park, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.

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