James Lowe and Hugo Keenan in line to start for Ireland against Wales

Big issue is lack of game time as Ireland manager unveils his matchday 23 against Wales

Munster’s Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw of Leinster in their Guinness Pro14 game at Thomond Park on January 23rd. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

When Andy Farrell unveils his Irish matchday 23 for their opening 2021 Guinness Six Nations match in the Principality Stadium on Sunday at lunchtime on Friday, he'll do so from a position of relative strength.

Allowing for the loss of his brilliant young number 8 Caelan Doris, worryingly sidelined with a recurrence of concussion issues, to compound the absence of Jacob Stockdale, Farrell will welcome back a clutch of internationals such as Garry Ringrose.

Speculation on the actual starting team is complicated by so many players having played little or even no rugby of late, and hence selection will to some degree be based on training at the HPC, including last Sunday’s run-out against Ulster. But the return of so many players from injuries is liable to be reflected in a more impactful bench particularly.

Stockdale's absence would appear to leave Hugo Keenan as the most viable option at full-back, given he has been playing there so efficiently of late for Leinster whereas the five other back-three players in the squad have all been playing on the wing.


Keith Earls’ experience was clearly seen as a factor when picked last time out alongside Stockdale and Keenan in the 31-16 Autumn Nations Cup third place win over Scotland, and this may therefore be the case again. Jordan Larmour has a couple of games under his belt, whereas Andrew Conway hasn’t played since December, while James Lowe’s groin injury sidelined him for two months.

His last outing was his second test in the defeat by England at Twickenham in November, a week after completing his debut by scoring a try in the last play of the game to seal the 32-9 win over Wales. However, Lowe has been back training for four weeks and the decision not to have him dust off the cobwebs against the Scarlets last week, in contrast to Tadhg Furlong, perhaps suggests his fitness is up to speed.

Touch wood

Once more Farrell and co have a full hand to select from in midfield and, touch wood, for once hopefully it stays that way. Ringrose is the best fit at 13 and his increasingly influential 80 minutes against Munster after recovering from a second broken jaw should see him return for his first test since the rescheduled Six Nations game against Italy last October.

In what is always a tight call, Robbie Henshaw’s strong run of form and games would point toward him being Ringrose’s partner ahead of Bundee Aki, who has played just half an hour’s rugby in the last six weeks due to a knee injury. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton look sure to be the half-backs again.

Ireland’s James Lowe in action against England in the Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham on November 21st, 2020. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Up front, David Kilcoyne and Tadhg Furlong have managed two, and one, appearances off the bench after prolonged absences, meaning they are likely to back up Cian Healy and Andrew Porter as replacements for what will be their first tests since the defeat by England in Twickenham last February.

Similarly, Rónan Kelleher's limited game time of late (half an hour's rugby since mid-December due to the fractured hand he suffered against Northampton) will likely mean Rob Herring is retained at hooker.

Maintaining this theme, Iain Henderson hasn't played since that play-off win over Scotland in the ANC due to the knee injury he sustained in that game. By contrast, Tadhg Beirne has had a strong run of form for Munster.


The loss of Doris will, most likely, see CJ Stander revert to number 8 and Peter O’Mahony to 6. Given the threat Wales will pose at the breakdown, the team could see the inclusion of one of the two opensides, Josh van der Flier or Will Connors, with the other perhaps preferred to Rhys Ruddock on the bench.

Wayne Pivac also announces the Welsh side at lunchtime Friday, and word from across the water is that despite Josh Adams’s two-game suspension from the squad for breaching Covid protocols, the in-form George North is in line to start at outside centre rather than his more familiar position on the wing. It is understood Jonathan Davies is nursing an injury and it will be North’s 99th test for Wales, most likely alongside Johnny Williams.

With Liam Williams also suspended, 20-year-old Gloucester winger Louis Rees-Zammit could thus make his first Six Nations start out wide with Hallam Amos on the other wing for his first test since the 2019 World Cup in a bid to counter Ireland’s aerial game.

Captain Alun Wyn Jones is expected to return to the side for his first game since injuring his knee in Wales’s win over Italy in early December.

IRELAND (possible) v WALES: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Will Connors, Jamison Gibson-Park, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.