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Injuries and form calls mean Ireland will have a refreshed look against Italy

Andy Farrell’s men restart their 2020 Six Nations campaign next weekend in Dublin.

TWICKENHAM IN FEBRUARY feels like a lifetime ago and much has changed in the meantime, in rugby and beyond.

For Andy Farrell and Ireland, there are now just six more days until they finally relaunch their 2020 Six Nations campaign when Italy visit the Aviva Stadium next Saturday.

There will be changes in personnel for Ireland due to both injuries and form.

For starters, Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong, and Devin Toner – all of whom started the 24-12 defeat to England eight months ago – aren’t in the Ireland squad. The fullback and tighthead prop are injured, while second row Toner wasn’t picked.

shane-daly-and-hugo-keenan Hugo Keenan and Shane Daly are hoping for their debuts against Italy. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Dave Kilcoyne, Keith Earls, and John Cooney – who were on the bench versus the English – are missing. The Munster pair are also on the injury list, while the Ulster scrum-half has been dropped from the squad.

Iain Henderson, Will Addison, Tom O’Toole, and Ryan Baird – all of whom would otherwise have been good bets to feature against Italy – are sidelined too, meaning Farrell has been deprived of lots of possible options for the coming weekends.

Leinster trio Johnny Sexton, Andrew Porter, and Rónan Kelleher have had injury issues in recent weeks but it’s hoped they’ll be fit for the meeting with Italy, while Peter O’Mahony and Chris Farrell are due back in training tomorrow after completing a period of isolation having been identified as close contacts of a Covid-19 case in Munster.

Connacht duo Finlay Bealham and Dave Heffernan are also in line to be available having come through return-to-play protocols.

With all of the above in mind, Ireland’s matchday 23 will have a refreshed look to it for the meeting with Italy.

In the back three, a starting debut for one of Shane Daly or Hugo Keenan looks certain with incumbent fullback Larmour sidelined. Jacob Stockdale has been playing at 15 for Ulster in recent times, but is a regular on the left wing for Ireland.

With Andrew Conway the other option in the squad – Dave Kearney trained with Ireland last week – and looking like a nailed-on selection in a first-choice back three, one of Keenan or Daly is set to start. Both prefer to play at fullback but Keenan also covers the right wing and Daly covers the left. James Lowe isn’t eligible until November.

A midfield of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose – who was missed in Twickenham – would bring form into the restarted Six Nations, but then Robbie Henshaw has also been very sharp for Leinster. With Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey providing further options, Ireland are spoiled for choice here.

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bundee-aki Aki is in superb physical condition. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

If fit, captain Sexton will be determined to wear the number 10 shirt next weekend, even if an Italy clash at home might sometimes be seen as an opportunity to give one of the back-ups, Ross Byrne and Jack Carty in this case, a starting chance. 

Meanwhile, Conor Murray has been the man in possession of the number nine shirt for a long time but Connacht’s Kieran Marmion is back in the international mix in good form and it would surely be a positive for Farrell to allow a genuine challenge to Murray’s frontline status.

The uncapped Jamison Gibson-Park offers something a little different with his calm decision-making, although he is not as good a defender as Murray and Marmion. 

With Cian Healy and Ed Byrne the only two looseheads props in the squad, the latter is set for his debut next weekend unless Farrell decides to ask Andrew Porter to cover across onto the loosehead side, as he did for last year’s World Cup.

Porter seems likely to be the starter at tighthead, however, with John Ryan and Finlay Bealham returning to the squad after Furlong and O’Toole picked up injuries. Meanwhile, Rob Herring is the incumbent at hooker but Kelleher and Heffernan offer tempting power around the pitch.

Henderson’s suspension for Ireland’s next two games may well have opened the door for 21-year-old second row Baird to make a starting debut against Italy but his badly-timed adductor strain has seen him ruled out too.

That means Quinn Roux and Tadhg Beirne are vying to start alongside James Ryan in the second row, while Ultan Dillane has also been recalled after missing out on the initial extended squad. Roux’s strength at the maul, scrum, lineout, and ruck are hard to ignore, while he offers power in the tackle too. Beirne, meanwhile, is the more mobile and skillful option, with his jackal threat very attractive.

quinn-roux Quinn Roux is among the options in the second row. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The back row selection will be fascinating, with CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, and Will Connors providing a variety of skill sets.

Stander and Doris looked nailed-on for a first-choice Ireland XV thanks to their impactful form but the third slot is certainly up for grabs.

O’Mahony reacted well earlier this year after being dropped for the opening game of the Six Nations against Scotland but is now coming off the back of a red card for Munster and that period of isolation.

Van der Flier’s relentless energy is difficult to overlook but he has had to battle for his Leinster spot with the chop-tackling specialist Connors, who had been in line to make his debut against Italy before the Six Nations was suspended.

Leinster number eight Conan returning to the mix is also interesting and Farrell could even consider a dynamic ball-carrying trio of Stander, Doris, and Conan at some stage, given that Stander is such a jackal threat and Doris has ever-improving lineout skills. 

Whatever way Farrell opts to go with some of the calls, Ireland’s 23 is sure to look rather different to when this Six Nations was put on hold.

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Murray Kinsella

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