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POM provides Ireland back-up but van der Flier 'doing nothing wrong'

Will Connors will make his Test debut at openside flanker against Italy on Saturday.

THE BACK ROW selection was always going to be a particularly interesting part of Andy Farrell’s team selection for this weekend’s clash with Italy and was possibly the most difficult area of the team to predict.

Caelan Doris and CJ Stander looked nailed-on but the third slot could have gone several ways, with Will Connors, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, and Jack Conan the other back row options.

will-connors Will Connors starts at openside for Ireland against Italy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Farrell has opted to give Connors a starting debut this weekend, with Munster captain O’Mahony in reserve on the bench.

Van der Flier is unlucky to miss out on the matchday 23 but he is an out-and-out openside, whereas O’Mahony – a blindside by trade – has more experience in the other back row slots.

O’Mahony was left out of Ireland’s starting back row at the very beginning of this year’s Six Nations but made a strong impact after coming off the bench just minutes into the Scotland clash, Doris having been forced off with a head injury.

The Cork man then held his starting spot for the Wales win and the defeat away to England, but has now returned to the bench as Farrell goes for Doris, Stander, and debutant Connors to start on Saturday.

“We think that the three we have picked are playing really well,” said the Ireland boss today when asked about including Connors for the first time.

“We think Josh is a great player and he always has been for us.

“We think Will add a little bit of mobility to our back row and obviously defence is a big part of the game.

“With CJ Stander and what we have seen over the last few weeks in terms of his presence over the ball [making turnovers], Will gives people like that opportunities as well.

“Not that Josh can’t do that, he definitely can. Josh is doing nothing wrong, it’s just a case of giving Will his chance and let’s see how he goes.”

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peter-omahony O'Mahony is on the bench for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Connors was with Ireland earlier this year, initially joining as a ‘development player’ but earning a full call-up to the squad during the Six Nations. Indeed, he had been in line for a first cap against Italy before the game was postponed and now gets his chance.

While the Kildare man is most renowned for his chop-tackling, Ireland will expect to see him use his footwork and handling skills to contribute in attack too.

“He’s been let loose a couple of times and he’s been smashing a couple of boys,” said Ireland hooker Rob Herring of Connors’ defensive ability. “I haven’t been tackled by him myself now but I know Stuart McCloskey said he chop-tackles really well.

“He’s an absolute machine on defence and his work-rate is incredible, so it’s good to see a guy like him get an opportunity for all the work he’s put in in the games for Leinster this year.”

Doris will be eager to make his second start after that debut against Scotland was ruined. His cameo off the bench in defeat to England at Twickenham back in February gave us a glimpse of what he can add.

The 22-year-old’s form since rugby’s restart has been superb, as has Stander’s, meaning Farrell will have confidence about his back row being a dominant force this weekend.

josh-van-der-flier Van der Flier misses out this weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Even more interesting will be how Farrell picks for the France game a week later. Again, Doris and Stander are obvious starters barring injury but it will be fascinating to see if a big performance from Connors against Italy sees him retain the number seven shirt.

Van der Flier’s energy and O’Mahony’s set-piece skills mean there could be arguments made for them being suited to the French challenge, while Conan’s dynamism offers something different again.

Connors gets the first chance to impress in green.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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