Ireland v Scotland: Murray keeps Cooney at bay in starting lineup
New head coach Andy Farrell keeps faith with Murray for first Six Nations clash
Andy Farrell has kept faith in Conor Murray for Ireland’s opening Six Nations encounter with Scotland. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland
Kick-off: 4.45pm, Saturday. Venue: Aviva stadium. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will start at 4.15pm. On TV: Live on Virgin Media Sport.
The Leinster number eight Caelan Doris will make his international debut after Andy Farrell named the hugely promising 21-year-old in his first selection as Ireland’s new head coach for next Saturday’s opening Six Nations game against Scotland (kick-off 4.45pm).
The likelihood is that Doris’ provincial teammate, 21-year-old hooker Ronan Kelleher, will also make his international bow as well after being named on the bench.
All told, there are five changes from the starting XV in the World Cup quarter-final defeat by New Zealand in Tokyo Stadium in a significantly refreshed and younger side to start the Farrell era as well as one positional switch, with CJ Stander moving to blindside as Peter O’Mahony drops to the bench.
Despite a foot injury sustained in Leinster’s win over Benetton last Saturday week, Jordan Larmour will start in his preferred position of fullback. Andrew Conway comes in for Keith Earls on the right wing and Bundee Aki, suspended for that All Blacks quarter-final, returns to the midfield in place of Robbie Henshaw, who is on the bench. In the front-row Rob Herring starts at hooker.
Perhaps with Kelleher’s anticipated debut in mind, Devin Toner is recalled to join O’Mahony on the bench.
As expected, Conor Murray has been retained ahead of the in-form John Cooney, who edges out Luke McGrath for a place among the replacements alongside his Leinster half-back partner Ross Byrne.
In addition to Earls, half a dozen of the match-day squad from that ignominious World Cup quarter-final exit were ruled out of this game through retirement (Rory Best), injury (Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery) or non-selection (Rob Kearney, Niall Scannell and Rhys Ruddock) in the 35-man squad that completed a week’s training in the Algarve today.
Doris has forced his way into the Irish back-row on the back of doing likewise with Leinster this season in the absence of the injured Jack Conan. The star turn and captain of the Irish Under-20s two seasons ago, perhaps too much was expected of him in his rookie campaign last season, but his form and imposing performances have risen appreciably this season.
His 10 starts this season, including four in the Champions Cup, are already only one shy of last season’s tally and he is a complete all-round rugby player. Physically big, he carries strongly, takes good lines, has an offloading and passing game and is also a very good defender, somewhat in the mould of Jamie Heaslip.
Kelleher also looks like a test match animal. Exceptionally dynamic, in the mould of Jerry Flannery and Keith Wood, as a former back-rower he is quick, takes excellent lines and knows where the try line is, witness his haul of seven tries in 10 games this season.
“I think it’s a great squad, that’s why we’ve picked it,” said Farrell, beaming enthusiasm. “We’ve been pretty open-minded. Coming out here to Portugal, training’s been pretty intense, we’ve had three really tough, hard sessions and been pretty open-minded about watching and making our minds up on the back of that.”
On the vexed question, for many people seemingly, of why he retained Murray over Cooney, Farrell said: “Well we watch and we see how the group’s taking shape etc . . . and I think first and foremost, Conor has been great, he’s been great around the group, he’s been in good form, he’s in a very determined mood and certainly in a leadership role as well he’s very experienced. He’s in great form.
“I understand all the chatter around John, because so has he. He’s a good player, but in our squad we have three good scrumhalves and Luke McGrath is the one who misses out, and he’s been training really well as well. I feel for Luke but you’ve got to make a decision somewhere. So we’ve gone with Conor to start and John will come on and do a good job for us.”
Murray would have to have been holed up in a bunker without out access to the outside world not to be aware of the clamour for Cooney’s inclusion, and asked if this would put pressure on the Munster man to perform, Farrell said: “I’ve said to the lads the whole time, and we announced the team this morning to them, and competition for places us going to be our friend.
“Some people get scared of competition, and we want to use it to enhance our competitive edge, because that’s what you need at international level, and every single one of our squad is going to be a part of that.”
Murray’s record-breaking partnership with Sexton was also a factor. “Well, we’ve got to do what’s right for the team to be at our best on Saturday and we believe for this game, and we’ll see how we go after that,” said Farrell.
Doris seems sure to bring some fresh energy and ballast to the Irish pack, and Farrell clearly likes what he’s seen in camp as well as his performances for Leinster.
“We believe that any youngster that’s coming onto the scene, the key point at international level is can they be themselves? Can they take the field and play their game and not just hope it goes okay, and we believe that Caelan is going to take the game to Scotland at the weekend and we’re looking forward to seeing him do that.” said Farrell.
“I like the fact that he is just himself. He’s not fazed by anything. He’s come into a group and it’s his first time into an international scene he’s been exactly himself. The training has been competitive. It’s been a bit physical at times and you can see his attributes all over that - he doesn’t accept coming second best as far as the contact of the game is concerned and that’s pretty impressive for a young kid.”
The Irish head coach also revealed that O’Mahony has taken his demotion to the bench in the manner one would expect of the Munster captain.
“Pete, he typifies our group, he’s been absolutely sensational since I gave him the news yesterday,” Farrell remarked. “He comes from good stock Pete. He’s been brought up in the right way and how he’s conducted himself since the news yesterday it’s been all about the team. Straight away after I told him he was on the bench he was the first guy on the computers helping other lads to know their jobs. Yeah, he’s been brought up the right way Pete and he’s been sensational today in training as well.”
Ironically, whereas Joe Schmidt only ever had Henshaw, Aki and Ringrose fit for one game in tandem, Farrell had to choose between all three for his first game in charge.
“Well, we’ve got three centres there that are starting and Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey who are in great form as well, and you’ve got to make a choice somewhere along the line. There’s not that much in it to be honest. I’m a massive Robbie Henshaw fan, and Robbie knows that, but you’ve got to make a decision, and we think for this week we’ll go with Bundee and Garry Ringrose, who’s in great form. So we’ll see how that goes and Robbie is there and raring to go coming off the bench.”
It also transpired that both Earls and Will Addison have been restricted in their training loads with minor knocks, which may have been factors in them not being picked. Furthermore, in planning for a five-game campaign in seven weeks, Farrell and his assistants clearly expect to use many of the 35-man squad.
“There were a couple of people that we’ve been looking after. Keith Earls hasn’t trained with us yet but he’s in good form and has done his last rehab run today. We’ll see how that goes. Will Addison has had a few up and down days, but he’s going to be fine.
“We’re all interested in the first day against Scotland but this is a five game competition, and we’ve got to make sure that we have a decent squad throughout so hopefully the lucky 23 that get to take the field at the weekend are going to do a job for the squad and we’ll see where we’ll go after that.”
Farrell also dispelled fears over Larmour’s wellbeing.
“We looked after him for a few days and we’ve had plenty of walk-throughs and jog throughs and Jordan has been part of all that and has been training for the last couple of days and he was flying it there today.”
Toner’s return to the bench constitutes an example for all others outside the squad.
“It’s a great lesson for anyone who’s looking to get into our squad when you look at what Dev has done,” Farrell stated. “I heard reports that when he went straight back training with Leinster he was just himself. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself at all. He dusted himself down and he got on with the job in hand and look where he is now.”
Kelleher’s lack of rugby possibly contributed to him not starting, although Farrell confirmed the bull-like hooker will make his debut next Saturday, while also stating that Herring was due what will be his belated Six Nations debut, almost six years after his first test in Argentina in 2014.
“I think Rob’s been a little bit unlucky with us. If you go back to the Australian tour with us I thought he was sensational and since then he’s had injuries and he was behind Rory at Ulster, so game time was a bit limited,” Farrell said. “I think he’s coming into his own now playing week on week and playing really good. So we’re excited for him to see how he goes at the weekend.
“Ronan, before his injury was on fire. He really came on during the pre-season and at the start of the season. We need to get him back playing, we need to get him back into the game and we feel getting him off the bench in this game will be good for him. Having said that Heff (Dave Heffernan) has been really good as well. I’ve been really impressed with all three of them.”
In giving a blueprint for what he hopes his team will become under his watch, Farrell declared: “I want to see the good old traditions of what Irish champion teams are all about - dominant forward pack, aggressive forward pack that’s unbelievably hard to handle, I’ve been on the other side of that myself.
“The little bits that we’re trying to build will take time, but hopefully before too long we’ll be talking about our own history.”
Ireland v Scotland: Jordan Larmour (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher (Leinster), David Kilcoyne (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), John Cooney (Ulster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster).