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Doris injury leaves Ireland with crucial call in the back row for visit to Wales

Head coach Andy Farrell has a range of skillsets to choose from for his side’s Six Nations opener.

Connors, Ruddock, and van der Flier provide back row options.
Connors, Ruddock, and van der Flier provide back row options.

THERE ARE FEW guarantees in Test rugby but we can all agree that Caelan Doris was nailed-on to start for Ireland against Wales in their Six Nations opener in Cardiff on Sunday.

The 22-year-old won’t play any part, however, having left Ireland camp and returned to Leinster for further assessment of symptoms “that could be associated with concussion.”

Doris has had concussions before – his Ireland debut lasted only four minutes before he was knocked out – so taking every precaution is the only option right now. It’s unclear how long the Mayo man will be sidelined for but he should be given all the time he needs to remedy the issue.

For Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, the loss of Doris is a big one.

The Leinster man has developed into a complete player and he has been a very important ball-carrier for Farrell’s side, as well as offering consistent impact in the tackle, jackaling ability, handling skills, and ever-improving lineout and maul work. 

Doris’s absence leaves Farrell with a crucial decision in his back row.

It seems obvious that CJ Stander will now be at number eight against Wales, while Peter O’Mahony is also expected to be part of the starting back row.

Will Connors, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, and Tadhg Beirne are the other back row options for the clash at the Principality Stadium.

caelan-doris-is-tackled-by-jamie-ritchie-while-fending-off-jaco-van-der-walt Losing Doris is a big blow for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Farrell has added Munster back row Gavin Coombes and Leinster’s Ryan Baird – who can play blindside as well as lock – to his training squad this week but it would be a major shock if they suddenly leaped up the pecking order to feature against Wales. 

Instead, Farrell looks set to pick Stander, O’Mahony and one of Ruddock, van der Flier, Connors, or Beirne in his starting back row.

Ruddock is back in the Ireland squad for the first time in the Farrell era, having been overlooked last year. His consistently excellent form for Leinster made him impossible to ignore this time around.

Stuart Lancaster explained recently that 30-year-old Ruddock has made changes to his strength and conditioning work and he looks all the more powerful and mobile for it.

An experienced leader who has captained Ireland before, Ruddock’s strong ball-carrying will be tempting for Farrell given the loss of Doris’ quality in that area. Ruddock also provides high work-rate and impact in the tackle and breakdown.

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Van der Flier – who has the most Test caps of the candidates [28] – is a relentless worker who has had some outstanding performances for Ireland on big occasions like the win over the All Blacks in Dublin in 2018.

He rarely earns headlines but his infectious energy shouldn’t be dismissed, particularly given that he started Farrell’s first three games in charge of Ireland. That said, van der Flier struggled for game time last autumn, starting only once.

24-year-old Connors emerged in that autumn campaign, starting three games and being used off the bench twice. Farrell is a big fan of Connors’ exceptional defensive qualities, while it has been noticeable that the Leinster openside is backing his handling and offloading skills more often as his confidence grows. 

will-connors Connors started three games for Ireland last autumn. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Connors’ ability to win momentum for his team will certainly be attractive to Farrell for this game in Cardiff. 

Munster man Beirne is primarily a lock but Farrell has stressed that Ireland continue to view him as an option at blindside flanker too. 

Having started twice in the second row in the absence of Iain Henderson last autumn, Beirne’s most recent start came in the number six shirt on a miserable day for Ireland against Georgia.

Beirne’s form this season has had him in contention for a place in the second row alongside James Ryan but Henderson’s return to fitness could see the Ulster captain edge him out of that spot – particularly given Farrell will be cognisant of adding ball-carrying ballast with Doris missing.

It might be that Farrell is tempted to get the in-form Beirne, with all of his turnover threat, handling skill, mobility, and lineout qualities, into the team in the number six shirt. Beirne has also been carrying very strongly this season.

With Wales potentially picking an experienced back row of the returning Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, and Taulupe Faletau for Sunday, Farrell’s call in his own back row will be crucial.

Ireland’s autumn campaign suggests that Connors is next in the back row depth chart, perhaps meaning a move back to the blindside for O’Mahony, but Ruddock’s superb form might be hard to resist.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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