Some surprise omissions but Farrell's 'dynamic' squad has plenty of form

The new Ireland head coach has made some big calls ahead of the Six Nations.

THE ANDY FARRELL era is already feeling very different and the rugby hasn’t even started.

‘Stocktakes’ and ‘development players’ are now parts of the lingo around Ireland, while the new head coach will name his starting XVs two days earlier in match weeks than was the case before.

As expected, Farrell also has his own ideas about selection and though there are naturally many familiar faces in his 35-man Six Nations squad, there is also a fair sense of change, certainly welcome after the poor World Cup.

andy-farrell Farrell believes he has picked the form players. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s a tremendous group,” said Farrell of his squad. “It’s dynamic, it’s powerful, it’s aggressive, it’s got a lot of skill, it’s got a lot of speed in there as well and we want to see all of those.”

It does look like an athletic Ireland squad and though there will always be focus on those unlucky to miss out on selection, there is much to be excited about in this group.

The42 understands that there weren’t any players ruled out based on injury – so the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Jean Kleyn, Marty Moore, and several others were discussed in the selection debates.

Limiting themselves to a 35-player squad made life a little more difficult for Farrell and his coaching staff, with Scotland and Wales having named 38 players each and France having gone for a 42-man group.

But Farrell is keen for his Six Nations squad to be as fiercely competitive in training as possible. He wants everyone feeling they are genuinely close to a starting spot, that no jersey belongs to any one player, and no one is there simply to hold tackle bags.

He is of the belief that every player in this Ireland squad has truly earned their place.

“There was one parting question that we left with the guys in the December camp just before Christmas – that you take selection into your own hands and we’ll be watching and make sure you’re in charge of getting yourself selected or not,” said Farrell.”

“Obviously, that’s through form and if you look at the squad, there’s a lot of good form through the squad.”

Leinster 21-year-old hooker Rónan Kelleher’s is among the five uncapped players included and his power, handling skills and dynamism in contact are all elements that excite Farrell. Ulster’s in-form Rob Herring will be hungry to succeed Rory Best as the starter, while Dave Heffernan edges out Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin. 

ronan-kelleher Kelleher is an exciting newcomer at hooker. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Having been the back-up hooker to Best at the World Cup, Scannell’s omission is a surprise, but Farrell is thought to rate Connacht man Heffernan – formerly a back row – for his explosive efforts around the pitch as well as his nuts-and-bolts work.

Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, and Andrew Porter were nailed-on as prop choices, but 30-year-old Jack McGrath makes his return after missing out on the World Cup. A Lion in 2017, McGrath looks revitalised by his move to Ulster last summer and has a real point to prove.

Over on the tighthead side, the inclusion of the uncapped 21-year-old Tom O’Toole ahead of Ulster team-mate Moore was not expected. The Drogheda man is Moore’s understudy at provincial level and has just one Champions Cup start to his name but again Farrell appears to fancy his dynamism and mobility.

Devin Toner’s excellent form for Leinster since his shock omission from the World Cup has been rewarded and he will be in contention for a Six Nations start along with second row incumbents James Ryan and Iain Henderson, while Ultan Dillane’s explosive ball-carrying is back in the mix too. Kleyn will need to step up a gear with Munster. 

The back row will be the most exciting area for many Ireland fans, with the uncapped Leinster duo of Max Deegan and Caelan Doris having firmly putting their hands up for involvement against Scotland on Saturday 1 February.

While Deegan and Doris excel with different playing styles and strengths, both possess handling skill and power. Both are also hugely in-form and will apply pressure to CJ Stander at number eight, while Deegan has the versatility to play across the back row.

It was a shock not to see Rhys Ruddock’s name in this squad, with the expectation having been that he would push Peter O’Mahony hard for a start blindside flanker. Instead, O’Mahony is in competition with his Munster team-mate Jack O’Donoghue, Stander and possibly Deegan for the number six shirt.

O’Donoghue’s two Ireland caps so far came in the 2016/17 season against Canada and Japan, meaning he has been working towards this for a long time. His form this season is superb and his excellent lineout and maul defence skills have been eye-catching.

jack-odonoghue Jack O'Donoghue was last capped in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ruddock was among the players to receive a much-dreaded phone call from Farrell before this squad was announced and has been challenged to step his form onto another level as he works to get back into the mix.

While Farrell has named 35 players here, he is of the view that there could be changes to the squad in a fairly fluid manner over the course of the championship. 

“Selection is always ongoing and we want it to be like that for as long as we possibly can. Competition for places at this level is absolutely key and for some of the guys who are obviously upset, not quite happy with not getting into the squad initially, the message has been loud and clear for them – we’ll be watching them play over the coming weeks to see what their form’s like,” said the head coach.

“That message will be loud and clear as well to the guys that are picked. This isn’t a World Cup where you pick 31 and that’s what you’re stuck with.”

The half-back selections look relatively straightforward in the end, with Conor Murray and Luke McGrath joined by the in-form Ulster scrum-half John Cooney, whose provincial halfback partner, Billy Burns, is deservedly included among the out-halves with Joey Carbery out injured.

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The absence of Stuart McCloskey in midfield will raise eyebrows in many quarters, but this is a truly tough area of the Ireland squad to break into. McCloskey is a pure inside centre and Farrell views Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw as being ahead of him at this stage.

Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell are the 13s, with the latter also capable of shifting to 12.

As for the back three players, Will Addison and Dave Kearney come into the squad after missing out on World Cup selection. Their form for Ulster and Leinster, respectively, has earned them spots in this group.

Munster’s Mike Haley, part of the stocktake in December, is omitted but the qualities of Addison and Jordan Larmour at fullback are hard to ignore. Rob Kearney, meanwhile, simply hasn’t had the game time for Leinster to change Farrell’s mind after the 33-year-old also missed out on last month’s camp.

will-addison-with-morgan-parra Will Addison has been playing excellent rugby for Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s a positive move from Farrell to include four development players in the shape of Leinster’s Ryan Baird, Will Connors, and Harry Byrne, as well as Ulster wing Robert Baloucoune – marking out their international potential.

That quartet will join Ireland in jetting out to Portugal next week for a pre-Scotland training camp, giving them a taste of the standards and demands involved in being part of the national squad.

Again, Farrell is of the mind that the involvement of development players will be a fluid process. Whereas in the past, Ireland would bring in Leinster sub-academy and club players to provide opposition in training sessions at times, Farrell is keen for every spot on his training pitch to be taken by a player who could be involved on a matchday in the near future.

“The provinces are really fast-tracking players and helping them along through quality coaching and giving them game time and we want to do the same,” said Farrell.

“There’s some exciting young talent out there, as we’ve all seen in our provincial games so far this year and we want to give one or two of them a leg up if possible to give them experience of what an international camp is like, what the intensity is like and see if that whets their appetite a little bit and let’s see what they do when they go back to their provinces and see if we can get a better reaction in the Pro14.”

It’s certainly a new era.

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