John O'Sullivan: Andy Farrell will have to broaden his selection base
While Farrell only used 26 players in first three games he introduced some fresh faces
Garry Ringrose in action for Ireland during the Six Nations game against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in February. Photograph: Tom Honan
Andy Farrell, who has used just 26 players in three Six Nations Championship matches since succeeding Joe Schmidt as Ireland head coach following last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, will have to broaden that selection base ahead of rescheduled tournament games against Italy in Dublin and France in Paris because of injuries and form.
Farrell must plan without two first-choice players in fullback Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Furlong, both of whom started all three games against Scotland, Wales and England last spring but are currently injured.
It’s a similar predicament that has befallen Munster loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne, who came on in each of the aforementioned matches, Max Deegan, a debutant in the victory over Wales at the Aviva stadium and Keith Earls, sprung from the bench in the final two games.
Ulster’s John Cooney, a replacement scrumhalf who saw game time in all three matches earlier in the year, was omitted from the original Ireland squad for the Italy and France matches, so too Leinster secondrow Devin Toner – he came off the bench for the Scottish and Welsh matches and started the game against England in Twickenham – and Connacht’s Ultan Dillane, who replaced Toner on 60 minutes against Eddie Jones’s team.
Dillane was recalled on Wednesday after Ryan Baird was ruled out of the two rescheduled Six Nations matches due to an adductor muscle strain.
For Saturday week’s game against Italy there will be a minimum of five changes to the matchday 23 from the England game with Larmour, Furlong, Toner, Kilcoyne and Earls absent; albeit that doesn’t preclude a higher turnover in personnel terms.
For example Garry Ringrose started the Six Nations as first-choice outside centre before a hand injury sustained in the first half against Scotland ruled him out of contention for the next two games.
Ireland lost Caelan Doris to concussion four minutes into his debut against the Scots and that informed selection for the next two games with the Leinster number eight eventually returning to the replacements for London. Iain Henderson’s absence at Twickenham was down to the fact that his wife Suzanne gave birth to a baby boy in the week of the game.
The inference drawn from Farrell’s selection policy in his first three matches is that he had a clearly defined preference in squad composition terms during that three-match block. There was a suggestion that had the Italy game gone ahead as originally scheduled, there would have been a few more changes.
What the Irish coach demonstrated in a very brief window is continuity of selection where possible – Ireland won their first two matches in the championship – but also that he isn’t afraid to give young players an opportunity.
Doris, Kelleher and Deegan made their respective debuts in the first two games of the Six Nations and a possibility that there will be three or four more in the upcoming Italy match if Hugo Keenan/Shane Daly, Ed Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park make the matchday 23.
Larmour’s absence requires a change at fullback and once Farrell identifies his choice then it will inform those of the two wings. Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale are currently in situ on the wings. Leinster’s recent preference was to play Keenan at fullback with Larmour switching to the wing and that may be replicated in the national side.
Stockdale has been playing there for Ulster more so lately than his traditional left-wing berth in the Irish side while Shane Daly has excelled at fullback for Munster. Conway can also play both wing and fullback. Keenan and Daly are uncapped at senior Test level.
In some respects no matter who wears the 15 jersey, Farrell knows that between the four players all bases are covered: Keenan (fullback and right wing), Daly (fullback and left wing), Stockdale (fullback and left wing) and Conway (fullback and right wing). If Ireland were going to Paris first up, Farrell might look at things differently but Italy at home should offer a little more scope to experiment throughout the team.
If Andrew Porter recovers from injury then he’ll start at tighthead, Henderson will be restored to the team if he avoids a disciplinary sanction after being sent off in Ulster’s game last weekend, but the other area of the run-on team that is cluttered with claimants is the backrow. Akin to fullback, deciding on who will fill the number eight jersey, will help determine the identity of the blindside flanker.
It will be interesting to see if Andy Farrell elects to stick, where possible, or twist when the team is announced next week.