Andy Farrell will name his Ireland squad later this month. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Six Nations around the corner as Ireland players aim to get up to speed

Many of Andy Farrell’s players have had very little rugby in recent months.

A YEAR AGO, Ireland fans were looking towards the 2021 Six Nations with some uncertainty after an up-and-down 2020 autumn series.

Andy Farrell’s side had beaten Wales and Scotland well in that Autumn Nations Cup, but they lost away to a bullying England side and delivered a concerning performance in their edgy win against Georgia. All of that came after disappointment away to France in the final rescheduled game of the 2020 Six Nations.

Fast forward a year to today and Ireland fans have reason to be optimistic with the opening weekend of the championship now just four weeks away, even if the 2022 Six Nations looks like the toughest one to call for some time. Five of the six nations will have genuine aims of winning the title.

Ireland can bring confidence after their impressive wins against Japan, New Zealand, and Argentina last autumn when Farrell’s men played some scintillating rugby in the three home victories.

And yet, it all feels like a long time ago now. A few of Ireland’s players, including captain Johnny Sexton, haven’t even played rugby since November due to injuries and Covid-enforced postponements, as well as one cancelled game in the case of Leinster.

Usually, a flurry of Champions Cup games, festive inter-pros, and another batch of European games in January would leave the Ireland head coach with lots of food for thought in terms of selection but it has been a stop-start couple of months in Irish rugby.

With that in mind, and given the performances in November, it would be a surprise if Farrell’s Six Nations squad is very different from the one he named in autumn. We must also remember that recent Test form is often as important as how players have performed for their provinces.

While Farrell might be relieved that some injured players have had time to recover and get themselves fresh, he is probably most concerned about just seeing his frontliners getting game time into their legs now.

johnny-sexton-and-garry-ringrose Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose at Leinster training last week. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There was some relief in yesterday’s announcement from EPCR that Rounds 3 and 4 of the Champions Cup stages are set to proceed as planned this month, even if Covid remains an obvious threat to those fixtures.

Already, there is concern about Leinster’s home clash against Montpellier on Sunday 16 January due to the French club having an outbreak of Covid. Their Top 14 meeting with Toulouse tomorrow has been postponed as a result but Leinster’s players will be hoping that Philippe Saint-André’s team can field for the European tie next weekend.

There are plenty of Leinster men who need the two Champions Cup ties to get up to speed before returning to international duty.

Sexton and Jack Conan haven’t played at all since the November series but are understood to have now recovered from injuries, while the likes of Jamison Gibson-Park, Robbie Henshaw, and Hugo Keenan will be eager for a couple of tune-ups too.

It’s expected that Ireland will confirm their Six Nations squad early in the last week of this month just before they come into camp under Farrell, meaning there is still time for some players to make their point over the next three weekends.

Unfortunately, Leinster and Connacht don’t play this weekend due to the postponement of their scheduled United Rugby Championship games against South African opposition, but Farrell will be watching with interest as Munster and Ulster clash in Thomond Park this evening.

Munster centre Chris Farrell missed the autumn series through injury and will be eager to return to the Ireland mix this spring, so this month is crucial for him. Number eight Gavin Coombes was part of the most recent Ireland squad but illness ruined his chance of being involved in the Tests, so he’s another aiming to build momentum.

As for the likes of Simon Zebo and Dave Kilcoyne – unused Ireland squad members in the autumn – today is an opportunity to start putting their hands up for Six Nations matchday involvement. Zebo last played 12 weeks ago.

simon-zebo Simon Zebo last played a game of rugby 12 weeks ago. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

From the Ulster side, centre James Hume was frustrated not to get any game time last November after being named in the Ireland squad so he will look to continue his excellent form after the province’s recent enforced two-week break due to Covid cases.

Hooker Rob Herring is battling for a place in Ireland’s matchday squad due to the emergence of Dan Sheehan to compete with Rónan Kelleher, while Farrell will hope to watch tighthead prop Tom O’Toole shining tonight. The Ireland boss wants to see 23-year-old O’Toole push on as genuine back-up to Tadhg Furlong sooner rather than later.

Farrell will have been disappointed with the absence of Conor Murray and Keith Earls from Munster’s matchday squad. The southern province didn’t report any injuries for the experienced Ireland pair and Farrell will hope to watch them return forcefully against Castres and Wasps in the Champions Cup this month.

Murray will be battling to get into Ireland’s number nine shirt after Gibson-Park’s impressive showings against Japan and New Zealand.  

Craig Casey gets another start for Munster tonight and hasn’t quite hit the heights of his form last season, with Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion among those continuing to push for a place in the Ireland squad.

Marmion’s halfback partner, Jack Carty, is very much contention for an Ireland spot due to his superb form and the injury to Joey Carbery, so they will be looking forward to Connacht’s Champions Cup ties against Leicester and Stade Français over the coming weekends. 

For tonight, it’s all eyes on Thomond Park. Farrell will have been closely tracking the injury situation of the likes of Iain Henderson, Carbery, Stuart McCloskey, and Robert Baloucoune – all of whom are sidelined at present. Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale, who was absent in November, also remains on the injury list.

It’s highly likely that Farrell already has his Six Nations squad largely picked but those in action in Limerick get a timely chance to sway his thinking.

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