Mack Hansen is out of Covid isolation. Billy Stickland/INPHO

Hansen back in Ireland mix as Farrell weighs up changes for second Test

The Ireland head coach’s options are limited in some areas of his team.

ANDY FARRELL MUST be thankful that there isn’t a midweek game to negotiate in New Zealand ahead of Saturday’s second Test.

Last Wednesday’s clash with the Māori All Blacks allowed the Ireland boss to give exposure to his wider squad and they may be better for the tough experience. There’s a second meeting with the Māori to come on Tuesday 12 July before the third Test in Wellington. 

But with his Ireland squad having already suffered several injuries and a couple of Covid-enforced isolations, as clean a run as possible at preparing for the second Test is ideal as the tourists aim to bounce back from last weekend’s 42-19 defeat in Auckland.

The main injury concern to come from that first Test is captain Johnny Sexton, who suffered a knock to the head as he slipped down into Sam Cane’s forearm and thigh in the first half.

Sexton did not return to play as Joey Carbery permanently took his place.

However, Ireland boss Farrell indicated post-match that he was hopeful Sexton would be back for the second Test, stating that the out-half had passed the HIA2 part of the Head Injury Assessment [HIA] protocol.

Sexton failed his initial HIA1 immediately after coming off the pitch.

“They tested him and deemed him not fit to go on because there’s all different sorts of tests that go on,” said Farrell. “You can stumble in your studs, you know, and not go on.”

However, Sexton passed the HIA2 and was hopeful of doing the same with HIA3.

“HIA 2 is passed, HIA 3 will hopefully be passed in a few days,” said Farrell.

“If that happens, it’s concussion not confirmed.”

johnny-sexton-receives-treatment Sexton was forced off in the first half of the first Test. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

An update is expected on Sexton’s fitness overnight and if he is cleared of concussion, the Ireland captain is expected to be in the number 10 shirt against the All Blacks in Dunedin on Saturday night.

There is an argument to be made for giving Joey Carbery a start this weekend on a high-pressure occasion but the reality is that Farrell and Ireland are targeting a first-ever win over New Zealand on Kiwi soil and want to do everything they can to keep this series alive. Sexton is their captain and talisman.

If Sexton is not fit, then Carbery would be set for a massive opportunity a week on from playing 49 minutes in the first Test.

An Ireland defeat always brings calls for lots of changes but Farrell seems unlikely to rip up his blueprint for this weekend.

Mack Hansen is now back in contention after missing the first Test due to Covid. The Connacht man was favourite to start on the right wing last weekend before he was ruled out, so it would be no shock to see him come into the number 14 shirt.

Hansen started four of Ireland’s Six Nations games this year – two on the left, two on the right – and brings an unpredictable edge that Farrell likes. He’s a confident, calm player who would welcome the opportunity to step up. Jordan Larmour is another who could come into the back three mix.

Farrell may also be considering a change in his midfield. It’s always a tough call between the trio of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, and Bundee Aki – with the Connacht man missing out on a start last weekend.

Aki’s confrontational edge and power in contact could be tempting this weekend, while he has worked hard to improve his distribution in recent years. Ringrose has been a consistent performer for Ireland at number 13. He made some uncharacteristic errors in the first Test but also had some strong moments. 

Farrell might be tempted to pair Aki with Henshaw, but Ringrose has been seen as a key man at outside centre for quite some time now.

andrew-porter-and-james-ryan Andrew Porter played the entire game last weekend. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Jamison Gibson-Park also made some mistakes for Ireland but he has been a pivotal figure under Farrell and the head coach will surely back him to improve in the second Test. 

Injuries in the tight five mean Farrell doesn’t really have scope for change in an area where Ireland will feel they were a clear second best last weekend.

Rónan Kelleher, Iain Henderson, and Dave Kilcoyne are all back home. Cian Healy clearly wasn’t fit last weekend despite being named on the bench. He didn’t come on.

Whether Healy has improved by this weekend remains to be seen – Ireland didn’t include him on their injury update today – and Ed Byrne may have to provide loosehead back-up after arriving as cover. Finlay Bealham will also be out of Covid isolation in time for the Test although Tom O’Toole would love a chance to build on his 13-minute cameo as tighthead replacement last Saturday.

With Dave Heffernan ruled out due to concussion, Rob Herring’s return to full training will surely see him slot into the number 16 shirt but an unchanged starting tight five of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, and James Ryan wouldn’t be a surprise.

Beirne was relatively quiet in the first Test as he returned from several months out of action. That was understandable. Ryan wasn’t at his best either but, again, Farrell has shown huge faith in the 25-year-old.

The back row could be reshuffled yet again, with Jack Conan possibly coming back into the starting XV or perhaps Gavin Coombes muscling his way into the mix after a strong outing against the Māori last week.

All in all, though, Farrell seems unlikely to hugely shake things up. He will hope that Ireland can push harder for a famous win by reducing their error count, improving their set-piece, and not having a disastrous spell like the one before half-time in the first Test.

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