Billy Stickland/INPHO Robbie Henshaw is among those vying for a start.

Wholesale changes unlikely for Ireland but Farrell could make tweaks

The Ireland head coach will be keen to keep his frontliners sharp for the England clash in Round 4.

RECENT HISTORY TELLS us that Ireland won’t be making wholesale changes for this weekend’s Six Nations clash with Italy.

The Italians are the weakest team in the championship and supporters regularly call for lots of fringe players and youngsters to be blooded in this fixture, but that simply hasn’t been the case for Ireland or most other teams.

The reality is that most opposition coaches will make only a small handful of changes for the Italy game and it seems likely that Andy Farrell will do the same for this weekend.

Having just had a fallow weekend and with another one to come post-Italy, the Ireland boss will be cognisant of not leaving frontline players short of game time ahead of their trip to London to face England in Round 4.

Ireland will definitely be making a change at hooker this weekend after Rónan Kelleher was ruled out of the rest of the championship through injury. Dan Sheehan impressed when replacing him off the bench in Paris and after four caps as a replacement, he is set for his first Test start this weekend.

The experienced Rob Herring is back in the squad after recovering from a calf injury and Dave Heffernan is also in the mix, but this looks like Sheehan’s time.

Building depth in the prop positions is a long-term project for Farrell and Ireland, but Andrew Porter is still relatively new to loosehead prop at this level and would likely benefit from maintaining momentum. That said, he can’t be expected to deliver 72-minute shifts in every Test even if he is a unique athlete. Cian Healy or Dave Kilcoyne should take on more of the workload this weekend.

At tighthead, there is an understandable gulf between Tadhg Furlong and the other options, making it a real shame that Tom O’Toole has been ruled out of the Italy game through injury.

finlay-bealham-and-aaron-wainwright Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Finlay Bealham has been backing up Tadhg Furlong. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Connacht’s Finlay Bealham will be called on along with Furlong again, although the Leinster man is probably very keen for another start to keep his legs and lungs ticking over ahead of the England fixture.

Having had so little rugby in recent months, Iain Henderson would benefit from a start in the second row alongside either James Ryan or Tadhg Beirne, so Farrell may use his bench to give more Test exposure to the athletic Ryan Baird if he’s keen to see more of the seven-times capped Leinster lock.

Farrell could give Beirne an outing in the back row if he opts to change up the starting trio of Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, and Josh van der Flier from the first two games.

Conan has been replaced relatively early in both Six Nations fixtures so far and it will be interesting to see if Farrell opts to switch Doris into the number eight shirt for this clash. Van der Flier looks like a must-pick in every game although Peter O’Mahony would love a start in the back row and Gavin Coombes’ potential is tempting too.

Jamison Gibson-Park is another player who would benefit from more time in the saddle as the starter at scrum-half, while four-times capped Craig Casey could do with more Test exposure.

Farrell’s call in Ireland’s number 10 shirt is most intriguing of all.

Captain Johnny Sexton is back from a hamstring injury and will clearly want to get up to speed before the England game, which he is a certainty to start, but there is so much potential upside to giving Joey Carbery another go from the off this weekend, allowing him to build on his good performance in Paris.

55 minutes for Carbery with a decent outing off the bench for Sexton seems like a decent balance, but it would be no shock to see the skipper back in the starting XV.

Robbie Henshaw is due a start in midfield and while Farrell will be tempted to bring Ulster’s James Hume into the number 13 shirt, he will also be keen to maintain some consistency in selection by keeping Garry Ringrose there or having Henshaw line up outside Bundee Aki.

robert-baloucoune-carries Billy Stickland / INPHO Robert Baloucoune has been pushing for a chance on the right wing. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

In the back three, the return of James Lowe shakes things up. He played 27 minutes off the bench for Leinster in a try-scoring performance on his return from a hamstring injury last weekend, looking physically sharp.

Mack Hansen has done well on the left wing in Lowe’s absence but Farrell may be keen to get the latter up to speed before the England game, particularly given that he offers a left-footed kicking option along with his array of attacking qualities.

Andrew Conway has been a key man on the right wing for Ireland but Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune is another strong option on that side, while Jordan Larmour would appreciate an opportunity if Farrell decides on a change in that position.

Hugo Keenan is the main man at fullback and would provide stability and continuity in the spine of the team if he goes again.

Farrell is due to name his Ireland matchday 23 on Friday and it would be a surprise if there was anything beyond a handful of changes to the starting XV as he looks to tune his team up for the England fixture. It may be that an exciting Ireland bench provides opportunity to mix things up.

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