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Dublin: 17 °C Thursday 6 August, 2020
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What kind of shape are Andy Farrell's Ireland in as they look towards next season?

Ireland were due to face Australia in Brisbane today.

BUT FOR THE Covid-19 pandemic, we would have been watching Andy Farrell’s Ireland play their first Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane today.

It would have been intriguing to see who Ireland selected for the two-Test tour of Australia and whether Farrell would have used the trip to Australia to blood more new players.

tadhg-furlong-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-second-try-with-devin-toner-and-robbie-henshaw Ireland were due to be back in Australia this month. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Instead of being in the midst of those games, Farrell and his coaching staff are instead looking ahead, with a busy schedule of games likely to come in late October and November of this year.

As the Ireland coaches plot for the future, we’ve had a look at how their options are shaping up in each area.

Loosehead prop

32-year-old Cian Healy remains the incumbent and is now back into full training after recovering from the hip injury he suffered in Ireland’s most recent game, the Six Nations defeat to England in February.

31-year-old Dave Kilcoyne will continue to apply pressure, while Jack McGrath [30] will be keen to build on his revival with Ulster in 2019/20.

All three will feel they still have their best rugby ahead of them and it’s unclear how Farrell views the next wave of looseheads such as Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan [24], Leinster’s Peter Dooley [25] and Ed Byrne [26], and Munster’s Jeremy Loughman [24].

There is also loosehead talent in the academy ranks while tighthead prop Andrew Porter has shown in the very recent past that he can still do a fine job when jumping back across to the loosehead side.

Hooker

30-year-old Rob Herring took over from Rory Best as starting hooker earlier this year but there has been a sense that 22-year-old Ronan Kelleher was on course to push past him as the season progressed.

ronan-kelleher Kelleher made his Ireland debut in the Six Nations. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kelleher certainly looks like Ireland’s long-term hooker, while Connacht’s Dave Heffernan [29] has been in the mix more recently. 

Munster man Niall Scannell [28] will be highly motivated to break back into the Ireland squad after missing out for the Six Nations, while there is a longer-term dark horse in Leinster’s Dan Sheehan, who has just been promoted onto a senior deal but has yet to make his debut.

Tighthead prop

With Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter still just 27 and 24, respectively, Ireland are in good shape in this position. Furlong is now part of the leadership group as he continues to mature.

Ulster’s 21-year-old Tom O’Toole was also in the Six Nations squad and has a bright future. Munster man John Ryan [31] will be keen to claw his way back into the mix, while Connacht’s Finlay Bealham [28] and Ulster’s Marty Moore [29] have further international aspirations too.

Longer-term, it will be fascinating to see how Munster’s young tighthead pair of Roman Salanoa [22] and Keynan Knox [21] develop, with both set to qualify for Ireland later this year. Leinster academy tighthead Thomas Clarkson [20] is also a fine prospect.

Second row

James Ryan’s quality makes him a first-choice at just 23, while Ulster captain Iain Henderson [28] was his locking partner for the opening two Six Nations games this year before an injury allowed Devin Toner to come in for the England defeat.

26-year-old Connacht man Ultan Dillane was back in the squad this year too. Tadhg Beirne [28] is due to be back from injury for the resumption of rugby and will be in contention, while fellow Munster man Jean Kleyn [26] and Connacht’s Quinn Roux [29] will have similar aims of returning to the squad.

tadhg-beirne-goes-over-for-the-third-try Tadhg Beirne will be fit for the restart of rugby in August. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Kieran Treadwell [24] has already been capped by Ireland, while Munster believe that 22-year-old Fineen Wycherley has the potential to play Test rugby and Connacht’s Gavin Thornbury [26] has been in an Ireland training camp.

The real one to watch in this area is Leinster’s 20-year-old Ryan Baird, who trained with Ireland this year and has huge potential. He looks set for a long Test career.

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Back row

As ever, this promises to be extremely competitive. CJ Stander [30], Peter O’Mahony [30], Josh van der Flier [27], Caelan Doris [22], Max Deegan [23], Jack O’Donoghue [26], and Will Conners [24] were the back rows in the Ireland squad during the 2020 Six Nations.

27-year-old Jack Conan is now back in full training with Leinster, while Dan Leavy [26] is also close having made a remarkable recovery from the horrible knee injury he suffered last year. Both will have starting ambitions with Ireland.

Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy [both 29] are two experienced players who have slipped out of the squad recently, while there is another raft of talented back rows bustling through from the four provincial academies. Farrell has a strong hand to choose from in this area.

Scrum-half

31-year-old Conor Murray retained his starting role in the three Six Nations games played this year but Ulster’s John Cooney [30] pushed him all the way and added energy in his cameos off the bench.

27-year-old Luke McGrath, in excellent form with Leinster, had to watch on from the outside of the matchday squad.

john-cooney John Cooney has been pushing Conor Murray at scrum-half. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht’s 28-year-old Kieran Marmion will be more determined than ever to play his very best rugby as he looks to muscle back into the frame, while Leinster man Jamison Gibson-Park [28] and Connacht’s Caolin Blade [26] have been in an Ireland training camps before. Munster fans are excited about 21-year-old Craig Casey.

Out-half

Johnny Sexton will feel lockdown has added longevity to his career as he prepares to celebrate his 35th birthday next weekend, while it will be very interesting to note if he continues as Farrell’s captain.

Leinster team-mate Ross Byrne [25] was his back-up during the Six Nations, while Ulster’s Billy Burns [26] was also in the squad but remains uncapped. Connacht’s Jack Carty [27] was hitting notable form just before the lockdown kicked in.

The return of 24-year-old Joey Carbery for Munster in September will be of keen interest to Farrell, with the Athy man having been an important part of Ireland’s squad before his cruel injury travails.

Leinster’s 21-year-old Harry Byrne trained with Ireland this year and is clearly the one to watch, while 31-year-old Ian Madigan is back playing in the country for the first time since 2016 and has lots of Test experience.

Centres

25-year-old Garry Ringrose looks like one of the first names on the Ireland team sheet when fit, while 27-year-old Robbie Henshaw and Connacht man Bundee Aki [30] ensure there is intense competition in this area.

Munster’s Chris Farrell and Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey [both 27] were the two other centres in the Six Nations squad, underlining that Farrell is very well stocked in the midfield.

garry-ringrose Garry Ringrose is a key man for Ireland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht’s Sammy Arnold and Tom Farrell will be among those keen to make a mark at provincial level, while there is exciting younger talent in the likes of Ulster’s 20-year-old Stewart Moore.

Back three

27-year-old James Lowe qualifying for Ireland at the start of November allows Farrell to add a very impactful joker to the pack. The New Zealand native has been highly effective for Leinster and continually shows signs of learning and improving.

The incumbents in the starting back three are wing Andrew Conway [28] and Jacob Stockdale [24], as well as fullback Jordan Larmour [23], while 32-year-old Keith Earls, Ulster’s Will Addison [27] and Leinster man Dave Kearney [31] were all part of the Six Nations squad this year.

Ulster’s athletic 22-year-old Rob Baloucoune spent time with the squad this year as a development player, while Munster fullback Mike Haley [26] has been capped by Ireland and the southern province’s new signing, 23-year-old Matt Gallagher, is Irish-qualified.

27-year-old Darren Sweetnam, who has three caps, will be among the others looking to break into the fold.

The major question for Farrell and co. in this area is how they put their starting back three together now that Lowe is in the mix. Larmour is the man in possession of the number 15 shirt, but Addison is a strong option there is he can stay fit, Stockdale has history at fullback, and Carbery could even come into contention too. Stockdale and Lowe look likely to compete for the left wing role, while Munster men Conway and Earls could be in contention on the right, although Larmour is also an option on either wing.

Whatever mix Farrell goes for, he will be pleased to have such a selection headache.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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