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Lying in wait - Where do Ireland's second string stand after a year to forget?

We take a look at the players hoping to earn more time on the pitch under incoming Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.

Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery before Ireland's World Cup game against Japan.
Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery before Ireland's World Cup game against Japan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE NUMBER OF challenges facing incoming Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has become increasingly clear over the past few weeks and months. Some of these problems run deep and will be long-term projects, but one of the more basic issues will be working out who exactly is deserving of a place in his team.

After a hugely successful reign as Ireland boss, Joe Schmidt’s final year in charge was accompanied of accusations of being too loyal to a core group of his most established first team players.

Whether Farrell believes those players are past their sell by date or not, it is clear that he will need to begin introducing some new faces to the starting XV, or at least making the the squad more competitive.

Despite all the talk of squad depth under Schmidt, the starting XV that took to the field against New Zealand last week would have been easily enough predicted at the start of the year, barring the surprise decision to leave Devin Toner out of the World Cup squad.

Schmidt was accused of not giving enough time on the pitch to those on the fringes of the team, but is that true?

Here, The42 takes a look at the opportunities afforded to some of those players outside the first choice XV in 2019, and where they stand heading into Farrell’s regeneration project.

TADHG BEIRNE
9 appearances in 2019, 5 at World Cup

Beirne’s case is a strange one. He was an exciting addition to the Munster squad after two excellent seasons with Scarlets, but he’s found it difficult to forge a path into the Ireland team. Like Jordan Larmour, Beirne’s versatility is potentially working against him when it comes to international level. He started four games for Ireland in 2019, two in the second-row and two in the back-row, while the majority of his five appearances off the bench saw him play as a lock.

Perhaps Andy Farrell will have a more clearly defined idea of what he wants from Beirne, otherwise he may find himself continuing to plug holes as needed. 

JOEY CARBERY
6 appearances in 2019, 3 at World Cup

We can safely assume that Carbery would have clocked up more minutes if not for the ill-timed ankle injury suffered in the World Cup warm-up clash against Italy, but it can also be argued that the time to put Carbery on the field had come and gone. If Ireland were already looking towards the World Cup during the Six Nations, then why did Carbery only get eight minutes in that bruising opening weekend loss to England? The Munster out-half came on in that game to replace Garry Ringrose, with Sexton playing the full 80. He then played 57 minutes against Scotland as Sexton was forced off with an early injury.

He has never started a Six Nations game for Ireland, and didn’t start a game in Japan despite being deemed fit enough to make the squad. Needs to start getting more time on the pitch, as the odd 20 minutes here and there is no good to him at this stage.

JACK CARTY
10 appearances in 2019, 3 at World Cup

The new kid on the block, even if he is 27. Fully deserving of his inclusion in the Six Nations squad after some excellent performances for Connacht, but looked raw at the World Cup, with flashes of brilliance in attack accompanied by a failure to really control games.

In the Six Nations he played three minutes against Italy and eight against Wales, either side of 25 minutes off the bench against France. With Sexton and Carbery ahead of him, the reality is Carty won’t get a huge amount of minutes when those two are fit. 

JACK CONAN
6 appearances in 2019, 1 at World Cup

CJ Stander has been one of the more divisive members of Schmidt’s first team. Some value his security on the ball, which certainly has its merits against the more physical southern hemisphere opponents, but if Ireland are to evolve their attacking game the more dynamic Conan looks a better option at No 8. 

Unfortunately for the Leinster player we won’t see him until the back-end of this season as a result of the foot injury suffered in Japan. Awful timing for a player who had a real chance of making the step into Farrell first choice XV.

ANDREW CONWAY 
8 appearances in 2019, 3 at World Cup

Just can’t force his way into the first team. Has generally covered both wing and full-back from the bench, but it was interesting to see Schmidt tend to use him more frequently on the wing this year – his four starts in 2019 all came on the wing

Farrell will need to decide who he wants to replace Rob Kearney, but there is also some long-term planning needed on the wing, as Keith Earls turned 32 earlier this month.

Conway has proved to be live-wire presence on the wing, scoring tries against Scotland, Russia and Samoa at the World Cup, so perhaps challenging his Munster team-mate is his best option, with Jordan Larmour and Joey Carbery among the options at full-back.

CHRIS FARRELL
6 appearances in 2019, 2 at World Cup

Fourth choice in a midfield battle that also includes Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. Schmidt rarely had all four available for selection, and Farrell’s opportunities have usually came when someone else has been out injured. 

Won’t be easy to force his way into the most hotly contested area of the pitch, but Farrell has always delivered when given his chance in the big games. A strong season with Munster will keep him firmly in the picture, and at 26, time is still on his side.

jordan-larmour-scores-their-fifth-try Jordan Larmour runs in a try against Samoa. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

DAVE KILCOYNE 
12 appearances in 2019, 5 at World Cup

Will be happy with his contribution in 2019, winning a third of his total caps despite making his debut back in 2012. Stood out in the two warm-up games against Wales, and got solid minutes in Japan, including 57 minutes from the start against Russia. Cian Healy still holds the jersey, but Kilcoyne is starting to put some real pressure on. Watch this space.

JORDAN LARMOUR
12 appearances in 2019, 5 at World Cup

Had some really bright moments when called upon in Japan, and not just in attack – remember Larmour, on as a temporary replacement, sprinting back to prevent an early New Zealand try? Some have wondered why Larmour has found it so difficult to nail down a first team place, but the clearest insight we’ve received on that issue came from Schmidt himself just a few weeks ago, after Larmour had stood out in the win against Samoa.

“He puts his hand up no matter where he ends up… I think his flexibility, his enthusiasm, he’s irrepressible,” said Schmidt, before delivering the killer line. “He’s a youngster who we try to have involved; we’re just not sure where sometimes.”

Larmour played 12 games for Ireland in 2019, starting five times across fullback and wing. Three of those starts came in the World Cup warm-ups, while the other two, against France in the Six Nations and Scotland at the World Cup, were a result of Rob Kearney being injured.

Kearney, 33, will not be Ireland’s full-back at the next World Cup, so it’s time to decide what Larmour’s best position is and give him a chance to develop his game. Doesn’t boast the aerial security which made Kearney such as a mainstay, but needs more time against the top nations to hone those skills.

LUKE McGRATH 
9 appearances in 2019, 5 at World Cup

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Missed the Six Nations with a knee ligament injury, but still managed to nail down a spot as second-choice scrum-half in the World Cup squad. Featured in all five games in Japan, but most telling was his involvement in Ireland’s two losses. Played 11 minutes against Japan after replacing Kearney, who was sent for a HIA. He then had to wait until the 74th minute to get on the pitch against New Zealand. Was Schmidt expecting Murray to suddenly turn on the magic, or did he not just not trust McGrath to make an impact if thrown in sooner? 

JORDI MURPHY 
4 appearances in 2019, 1 at World Cup

A hugely frustrating year for Murphy. Made the bold decision to leave Pro14 and Champion Cup champions Leinster at the end of the 2017-18 season, with his move to Ulster based on a desire to boost his international opportunities.

Played only four times for Ireland in 2019. Only featured once in the Six Nations, but played the full 80 minutes away to Italy, his first start in the tournament since 2015.

Despite his lack of opportunities he always appeared to be highly thought of by Schmidt, but injuries have held him back. Murphy missed almost a full year after sustaining ACL damage in the 2016 defeat of New Zealand, a game in which he started and scored a try.

Missed out on the World Cup squad before being drafted in to replace Jack Conan, only to be forced off with a rib injury himself 26 minutes into the Russia game.
At 28, there is no reason why Murphy can’t force his way into Farrell’s plans with Ireland’s back-row accused of looking jaded in Japan. To do that he needs a big season with Ulster, and most importantly, he needs to stay off the treatment table. 

ANDREW PORTER
12 appearances in 2019, 5 at World Cup

Porter’s run has very much the one of a second-choice prop, and while he’s seen plenty of involvement over the past year, his only start came in August’s warm-up fixture against Italy. In fact 19 of Porter’s 23 caps have come from the bench. The main reason for that is that Tadhg Furlong has been a nailed-on starter, but Porter has also suffered from the fact that he’s been so reliable from the bench. In the first warm-up game against Wales, Porter again started on the bench with John Ryan getting a rare start at tighthead. Schmidt knew what he would get from Porter and didn’t need to see any more from him.

Despite being confined to the role of ‘finisher’ in Japan, he performed well on each occasion. Furlong isn’t going to lose his place in the team anytime soon, but Porter is a player deserving of more involvement going forward. 

RHYS RUDDOCK
5 appearances in 2019, 3 at World Cup

Has been involved with Ireland for almost a decade now, yet only has 26 caps to his name. A curious case. Ruddock was often Schmidt’s captain when selected, but most of the time he failed to even make the match-day squad. 

Didn’t play a single minute in this year’s Six Nations, but that may have been different if a hamstring injury didn’t rule him out of the Italy game. Still, the challenge for Ruddock going forward is the same task that’s faced him for the last number of seasons – making the step up from leader of the second choice team to genuine back-row contender.

The long-term injuries to Dan Leavy and Jack Conan, along with Sean O’Brien’s departure for London Irish, should open up a few spaces in Leinster’s bigger European games. Performing well there is the best way to catch Farrell’s attention.

NIALL SCANNELL
9 appearances in 2019, 4 at World Cup

Looks to have established himself as the second-choice hooker, but the position is now open following Rory Best’s retirement. Only started once in 2019 – against Russia – but was often preferred on the bench over Sean Cronin, who struggled to convince Joe Schmidt despite regularly starring for Leinster. Andy Farrell may view things differently, but at the moment Scannell appears to be in the driving seat in the race to succeed Best as Ireland’s first choice hooker. 

- Originally published at 07.20

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