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Farrell's 23-man squad indicates a settled Ireland side for Scotland clash

The retention of Ryan Baird suggests he could be involved again in Edinburgh.

Ryan Baird impressed off the bench on his debut in Italy.
Ryan Baird impressed off the bench on his debut in Italy.

THE MOST NOTABLE name in the 23-man Ireland squad Andy Farrell is retaining for a two-day training camp later this week is that of Ryan Baird.

Farrell’s decision not to release the 21-year-old lock back to Leinster for this weekend’s inter-provincial clash with Ulster underlines that the Ireland boss is considering including Baird in his matchday squad against Scotland on 14 March.

It was only a 17-minute cameo against Italy with the game already decided, but Baird did well on his Ireland debut, claiming more lineouts than any other Irish player on the day and making five strong tackles. His first carry in Test rugby demonstrated the explosive power that makes him such an exciting prospect for Irish rugby.

Farrell’s 23-man group will gather for training on Thursday and Friday this week, with the selection neatly fitting into the slots of a matchday 23. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a massive surprise if this was Farrell’s selection to take on the Scots.

While the Ireland boss will acknowledge that Italy were poor on Saturday in Rome, he will have enjoyed what he saw from the players handed opportunities to impress, particularly up front.

Dave Kilcoyne was explosive in many of his contributions before being forced off for a head injury assessment that he failed, with the Munster man doing enough to challenge Cian Healy’s status as the first-choice start.

23-year-old Ronan Kelleher demonstrated that he is Ireland’s most dynamic hooker option and though he will be frustrated with one crooked throw, his set-piece work was solid otherwise. Rob Herring has been the man in possession of the number two shirt but Kelleher has now posed a genuine question.

ronan-kelleher Ronan Kelleher is an explosive carrier and tackler. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Tadhg Furlong has long been the first-choice at tighthead prop but this was his first start in a year after his recent return from injury. His determination to make up for lost time is clear, although Andrew Porter has been playing very well as the starter and showed his motivation to hang onto the number three shirt with a good replacement appearance.

In the second row, Iain Henderson and James Ryan look as good as nailed-on as the starting pairing, particularly given that the in-form Tadhg Beirne successfully switched to the blindside flank against the Italians.

The number six shirt arguably suits Beirne even better within this Ireland team and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him continue there. At openside, Will Connors grabbed his chance in Rome with an outstanding display and has done everything possible to hang onto his starting spot for Edinburgh.

With CJ Stander a valued leader from number eight, it could be that Farrell sticks with the same pack for the Scotland game. Farrell praised Jack Conan’s energy off the bench last weekend and may harness it again versus the Scots.

Even if Farrell brings the likes of Healy and Herring back into his starting XV, there is now genuine competition for spots.

Jamison Gibson-Park has done a fine job of making a claim at scrum-half. Conor Murray is expected to be fit for the Scotland game after his recent hamstring injury, although he won’t have played for five weeks at that stage.

Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Murray does come back into the starting XV and he had been in good form before his injury, although Gibson-Park offers something different in an attacking sense for Ireland.

Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, and Garry Ringrose will almost certainly continue in the 10, 12, and 13 shirts in Edinburgh, meaning centrally-contracted centre Bundee Aki – back with Connacht again this week – is facing the prospect of not playing a minute of the Six Nations campaign. 

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In the back three, Farrell will hope Jordan Larmour overcomes the hip flexor issue that forced him off at half time in Rome, just after his missed tackle on Italian try-scorer Johan Meyer. Prior to that, Larmour had looked sharp in possession, most notably when offloading to Connors for his first try. That said, Keith Earls is a tried-and-trusted option on the right wing for Ireland.

garry-ringrose Ringrose was excellent in Rome. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Hugo Keenan’s strong form at fullback means he’s unlikely to be shifted and while James Lowe hasn’t been able to fully get going in this championship just yet, it’s clear that Farrell has belief that the pay-off will be worth it if Lowe starts firing at maximum potential.

While the 23 he has in camp this week could be the 23 he uses for the Scotland game, Farrell will be keeping a close eye on this weekend’s inter-provincial ties.

Of the 13 players released back to their provinces, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Ultan Dillane, and Craig Casey may have the highest hopes of returning to the Ireland 23.

Farrell will also be watching closely as Jacob Stockdale makes his second appearance after recovering from a knee injury. The Ulsterman got through 40 solid minutes against the Ospreys last Friday night and could come back into the Ireland mix as an option on the left wing or at fullback. 

As Farrell looks towards the resumption of Ireland training on Thursday, he will feel his squad is in a much better place than a week ago.

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Murray Kinsella

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