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Farrell aiming to gain momentum as he picks strong Ireland team for Italy

There are seven changes to the starting XV while Ryan Baird and Craig Casey should debut off the bench.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

WITH IRELAND NEEDING a momentum-building victory in Rome this weekend, Andy Farrell was never going to go for any wild experimentation against Italy but the Ireland boss has given things a shake-up with seven changes for the Six Nations clash.

An all-new front row stands out in that regard.

Longstanding first-choice tighthead Tadhg Furlong is deemed fit enough to start after two replacement appearances against Wales and France, and there is little doubt the Wexford man will be out to prove a point following the excellent form of Andrew Porter in the number three shirt while he has been missing.

Similarly, Dave Kilcoyne gets a shot at showing how valuable his ball-carrying prowess can be from the off in what will be just his ninth Test start. The Limerick man recently turned 32 but will be of the mind that he has lots left to achieve with Ireland.

Most pertinently for the long-term future, 23-year-old Ronan Kelleher comes in for his third Ireland start after making an impact off the bench in the last two games. The explosive Leinster man has to nail the set-piece nuts and bolts to go along with his dynamism but Farrell will be hoping to see something that challenges Rob Herring’s status as the leading hooker option.

Jordan Larmour is back in Ireland’s starting XV for the first time in over a year and he is another dynamic addition. His aerial skills will surely be tested again by the Italians but there is no doubting his footwork and ability to beat defenders.

Larmour is still only 23 but has already been part of a Grand Slam success and we can bet he has been frustrated to sit on the bench for the opening two rounds of this competition.

He is part of an all-Leinster backline for Ireland, which hasn’t happened since all the way back in 1931, according to highly-respected statistician Stuart Farmer.

andy-farrell-and-paul-oconnell Paul O'Connell and Andy Farrell at Ireland training. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Farrell has pointed out in the past that he doesn’t consider players’ provinces when picking his Ireland squads or teams, but he will surely be hoping for a sense of cohesion from Larmour, James Lowe, and Hugo Keenan in the back three outside Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, returning captain Johnny Sexton, and Jamison Gibson-Park.

Farrell has resisted the temptation to break up with midfield pairing – with the centrally-contracted Bundee Aki released back to Connacht – and it’s very likely that Conor Murray would also have started had he recovered from his hamstring injury.

Farrell is naturally keen for some continuity from this game on into the round four and five clashes with Scotland and England as he looks for his men to turn their championship around following two defeats.

There were many calls from supporters to try something different at out-half, but had Sexton not started here after his recovery from a head injury, he would have come into the Scotland fixture without a start in five weeks. 

Murray may be in the same boat if he is to be involved against the Scots but for now, Gibson-Park gets another chance to show his qualities. This game seems ideally suited to his creative decision-making around the ruck and his thirst for tempo. 

Craig Casey is included on the bench again and it is far more likely he gets game time this weekend after his frustration at not being used against the French. The 21-year-old is a very exciting prospect so a decent run in Rome seems like a sensible investment.

The same applies to Ryan Baird, a uniquely athletic 21-year-old who should provide impact off the bench. The Leinster man has much to learn at the top level of rugby, of course, but he is the kind of dynamic athlete that Farrell believes can make a difference.

ryan-baird The start of Ryan Baird's Test career is an exciting element of the selection. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Baird provides cover for the first-choice lock pairing of Iain Henderson and James Ryan, their partnership rekindled after the latter’s recovery from a head injury.

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Ryan’s return means a shift to blindside flanker for the in-form Tadhg Beirne, whose move to the number six shirt means Rhys Ruddock is unlucky to miss out on the matchday 23 altogether after starting against France.

Ruddock’s set-piece work was exemplary that day but Beirne is potentially better suited to the expected style of game on Saturday in Rome, where his ball-handling and jackaling could allow Ireland to flourish. The hope for Ruddock is that his Ireland return doesn’t prove short-lived and he certainly could play a role against the Scots and English.

24-year-old Will Connors replaces Josh van der Flier at openside after making his presence felt late on against the French, while Farrell sticks with CJ Stander at number eight in avoiding the temptation of bringing the in-form Jack Conan straight into the starting side.

Instead, Conan is set for his first Ireland cap since the 2019 World Cup off the bench and he will definitely be eager to make up for lost time.

Clearly, Farrell already has one eye on the Scotland game, as he should, but this is a strong, dynamic Ireland team that gives respect to Italy and also looks well suited to the challenge. 

The Ireland boss will hope for a convincing victory that lifts confidence and momentum after a tough opening fortnight in this championship.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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