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Dynamic, quick, skillful - Ireland's forward pack looks finely balanced

Andy Farrell is excited about what his ‘brilliant pack’ can do against Japan.

Porter, Kelleher, and Furlong start in the front row.
Porter, Kelleher, and Furlong start in the front row.

Updated Nov 5th 2021, 8:32 AM

THERE ARE A few different angles to come from if you’re keen to pick holes in Andy Farrell’s latest Ireland selection but there can’t be too many people who look at Ireland’s starting pack to face Japan without at least a hint of excitement.

With a forwards coach as sharp as Paul O’Connell in charge of them, there is plenty to like.

Rob Herring was the safer choice at hooker and has done plenty of good stuff for Ireland over the last year but Farrell has gone for the more explosive 23-year-old Rónan Kelleher to start with another 23-year-old, the uncapped Dan Sheehan, in reserve. 

There’s much more to being a good hooker than running in tries out wide but Kelleher’s athleticism has proven impossible for Farrell to ignore. The same applies to Sheehan, who has yet to play a European game for Leinster but has the size and power to make an impact at Test level.

If they can nail their lineout throwing and scrum work, Farrell could be onto a winner.

Andrew Porter’s switch to loosehead prop with Leinster means Farrell is now finally able to unleash him and Tadhg Furlong in the same Ireland front row, a prospect he has been keen on for some time.

Porter was a good enough tighthead to be chosen by the Lions this year but he’s simply too good not to be a starter. There could be teething issues at scrum time as he readjusts to the position he played as an underage star but having his explosive carrying, accurate tackling, and jackal qualities in the starting XV is good news for Farrell. Furlong, meanwhile, remains one of the best in the business.

The back row is an exciting one too, particularly given that it feels Jack Conan is now fully realising all the potential he always had. The Leinster number eight has had his fair share of bad luck on the injury front and didn’t grasp previous opportunities with Ireland, but he’s now in a rich run of injury-free form. His ability to pass, offload, and beat defenders with footwork gives Ireland a nice dimension.

caelan-doris-and-ruben-de-haas Farrell rates Caelan Doris very highly. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Caelan Doris shifts to the blindside to ensure he is still in the team too. Farrell is a big fan of the Mayo man’s complete skillset. Doris can jackal, is comfortable in handling the ball, wins the gainline in traffic, can jump in the lineout, and makes good decisions. He is still only 23 but plays with maturity.

Josh van der Flier is at openside for this clash with Japan and, again, he brings form to the party. He has taken his ball-carrying to the next level and improved his breakdown work to go along with longstanding strengths like his infectious work-rate, so now he will be keen to become a consistently dominant force in the number seven shirt at this level.

Dan Leavy is making good progress with Leinster and will surely feature with Ireland again at some point in the near future but right now, van der Flier is deservedly first-choice in this position.

With Iain Henderson still not at full match fitness, Farrell has gone for a second row pairing of James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne, the latter of whom was underutilised by the Lions during the summer. 

Beirne’s form in the 2021 Six Nations was remarkable and he will be looking to pick up where he left off with his all-court game.

Ryan, meanwhile, wasn’t on the Lions’ radar at all after his form dipped last season partly due to the frustration of injury niggles. It feels like he has been around for a long time but Ryan is still only 25. The challenge for him now is to round out his game, offering slicker handling skills, better footwork, and more varied defensive technique along with his close-in carrying, chop tackling, and set-piece work. 

“It is a brilliant pack,” said Farrell of his forward selection yesterday.

“It’s dynamic, it’s quick, it’s fit.”

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james-ryan James Ryan partners Tadhg Beirne in the second row. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It looks like all of those things but, as ever, the proof will be in what Ireland do on the pitch tomorrow. With Japan selecting just one genuine second row in their matchday 23, there’s no doubt that Farrell, O’Connell, and scrum coach John Fogarty will be aiming for big wins at set-piece time.

Most of this Ireland pack have good skillsets when it comes to passing too, with several of them capable of accurate offloads, meaning we may see more fluid interplay from Farrell’s side too.

“We have that ability in the back row and second row, even in the front row,” said Conan. “Tadhg, Ronan, and Ports all have incredible skillsets for front rows.

“It’s trying to suit the bodies that you have and I think that’s what Faz, Paulie, and Fogs have done. They’re picking lads who can play this mobile, expansive game with pace that suits us.

“In saying that, we obviously also have the ability to get into an arm-wrestle as well.”

Many supporters would have liked to see Gavin Coombes on the Ireland bench but he was ruled out due to a virus, while Nick Timoney has missed out on selection, so Peter O’Mahony takes up the back row slot among the replacements, who also include Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, and Henderson.

The Irish pack looks good on paper, tomorrow we find out if it works in Test rugby.

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella, and Gavan Casey look ahead to Ireland-Japan with the help of Japanese rugby expert Rich Freeman, while the lads also assess ‘Tier Two’ rugby two years out from the World Cup:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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