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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

'We're not promising anything' - Ireland's seven changes give XV a different look

Andy Farrell has handed out seven new caps so far in his tenure, with two more to come on Friday.

COME FRIDAY NIGHT, Ireland boss Andy Farrell will be able to reflect on handing out nine Test debuts in his first six matches in charge.

The rate of change won’t please some people, nor will his choice of personnel, but Farrell will likely feel that he’s moving his squad forward while still trying to be competitive.

By way of comparison, Joe Schmidt gave Test debuts to four players in his first eight games in charge, although it is worth remembering the Kiwi had to face Australia and New Zealand in his first November campaign.

There were three Test debuts in Declan Kidney’s first eight games in charge of Ireland, so Farrell is already ahead of his predecessors in that sense.

andy-farrell Farrell has made seven changes to his starting XV. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It is admittedly a crude measure and it would be wrong to ignore the fact that injuries have played their part to a degree, but Farrell has given first caps to Caelan Doris, Ronan Kelleher, Max Deegan, Hugo Keenan, Will Connors, Ed Byrne, and Jamison Gibson-Park so far this year.

James Lowe is the next in line after being named to start against Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup on Friday, while Ulster out-half Billy Burns will be the ninth new cap in the Farrell era if he gets off the bench.

The introduction of Lowe is one of seven changes to Ireland’s starting XV from the defeat to France in the Six Nations, with Farrell keen to give opportunities to more of his 34-man squad in the upcoming run against Wales, England, Georgia, and a still-to-be-decided play-off opponent.

Indeed, Farrell hinted again yesterday that there could be more players welcomed into the Ireland squad ahead of that Georgia fixture on 29 November.

“Do you know what? We might use more. We could use more,” said Farrell yesterday. “Having conversations with lads last night and this morning regarding selection [for Wales], we’re not promising anything for next week neither.

“Each game takes its own course, you go into the Georgia game and you don’t know who we’ll play in the last round, but you would think over a period of six international games [including the two Six Nations fixtures], you’d certainly get through more than 34.”

On Friday, 22-year-old hooker Ronan Kelleher gets his first Test start with Ireland’s number two shirt still up for grabs in the post-Rory Best era. Ulster’s Rob Herring has done well so far but three-times capped Kelleher is a superb athlete with big potential.

Alongside him at tighthead, 24-year-old Andrew Porter gets a third consecutive Test start. Tadhg Furlong is a key man for Ireland but his injury-enforced absence does allow Porter to continue to learn the ropes at the highest level.

ronan-kelleher Ronan Kelleher gets his first start at hooker. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

33-year-old Cian Healy remains in situ at loosehead, with Ed Byrne to win cap number three off the bench, while Farrell welcomes back Iain Henderson from suspension alongside James Ryan in the second row. 

28-year-old Ulsterman Henderson adds experience and quality in contact. It will be fascinating to note whether he takes over the lineout calling again or whether 24-year-old Ryan continues to learn the ropes in that regard.

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In the back row, 22-year-old Doris gets just his fourth Test start as he moves back to his natural position of number eight as CJ Stander – a very important player for Ireland – is rotated out.

Again, Doris is a superb athlete with the potential to be a complete player. Farrell has opted for the lineout nous of the experienced Peter O’Mahony and the relentless energy of Josh van der Flier on either side of the number eight. Both will be hungry to prove a point.

At scrum-half, there’s a first Test start for Gibson-Park on the occasion of his third cap, as Conor Murray is benched, although the Leinster man’s relative inexperience is balanced by captain Johnny Sexton alongside him.

Many supporters would have liked to see Farrell make a change in the number 10 shirt too, but instead 26-year-old Burns will get his first taste of Test rugby off the bench.

Those who felt Munster man Chris Farrell needed more opportunity in midfield will be pleased to see him in the number 13 shirt for what will be his 11th cap, with Robbie Henshaw moving to inside centre.

“Chris has been playing some excellent rugby,” said Farrell. “He’s sharp, he’s quick. He’s got a skillset that people don’t really understand because of that physicality, so we want him to be himself and have confidence.”

chris-farrell Chris Farrell gets his 11th Ireland cap on Friday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In the back three, Jacob Stockdale will make his third Test start at fullback as he continues to learn about the demands in that position in international rugby. Farrell will expect more excellent left-footed kicking and powerful running with fewer errors.

The addition of Lowe is a potentially game-changing one, with the left wing bringing power and offloading ability to the mix. He will have to adapt with the step up, of course, but his new team-mates are clearly excited about the Leinster man’s ability.

Over on the right wing, Hugo Keenan wins his third Test cap in what is a back three that certainly doesn’t yet have the tried-and-tested stamp.

Farrell has balanced things out with the experience of the likes of Healy, Henderson, O’Mahony, Sexton, and Henshaw as he looks to ensure there are no slip-ups on home soil against a Wales team desperate for a win under Wayne Pivac.

There is plenty more experience off the bench in Murray and the returning Keith Earls, while previous starters Herring, Tadhg Beirne, Stander, Bundee Aki and Andrew Conway rotate out of the matchday 23.

While they will appreciate that Farrell is looking at other options, none of them will be happy to miss out on a Test match with Ireland.

Farrell will hope a home win on Friday, as well as a strong performance, will bring about plenty more competition for places.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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