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Ringrose nailed on at 13, so who plays 12? - Ireland's midfield for the Six Nations

Chris Farrell and Stuart McCoskey are also vying for centre places under Andy Farrell.

OUR EXAMINATION OF the options available to Andy Farrell in his Six Nations squad and the big calls he has to make in several positions continues today with a look at Ireland’s midfield.

We have previously focused on the front row, second row, back row, and halfbacks in the Ireland set-up, but here we discuss the five excellent centres aiming to convince Farrell of their starting claims.

__________

Centres

Bundee Aki [Connacht, 23 caps]
Chris Farrell
 [Munster, 9]
Robbie Henshaw [Leinster, 40]
Stuart McCloskey [Ulster, 3]
Garry Ringrose [Leinster, 28]

Joe Schmidt never consistently had to make a decision and pick two of Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, and Garry Ringrose for the biggest Tests of his time in charge of Ireland, with one of the trio invariably injured.

They were all fit for the first game of last year’s Six Nations against England, but Schmidt ended up avoiding making the call by selecting Henshaw at fullback in a hastily-abandoned experiment. 

garry-ringrose-on-the-way-to-scoring-their-fifth-try Ringrose looks nailed-on at 13 for Ireland. Source: Jayne Russell/INPHO

Andy Farrell’s first game in charge sees Henshaw, Aki, and Ringrose all fit, while Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey – who was added to the Six Nations squad after initially missing out – are also in contention in midfield.

The expectation, however, is that Ireland will pick two of Aki, Henshaw, and Ringrose in their opener against Scotland. It will be fascinating to see which of the three centres misses out.

While Henshaw can also play at outside centre, Ringrose and Farrell are the two centres who start at 13 for their provinces. Ringrose is the incumbent and was one of Ireland’s best players at the World Cup. He has been in sensational form for Leinster since, so it would be a huge shock if the 24-year-old doesn’t start against Scotland.

Ringrose has made a stunning 20 clean line breaks so far this season, more than double the next best centre – Henshaw on nine. Ringrose has beaten 36 defenders in total, well clear of Henshaw and McCloskey on 25 each. 

We have also seen Ringrose provide opportunities for others with two try assists and a further eight passes that resulted in team-mates making line breaks. In short, the Leinster 13 is on fire in attack.

Defensively, Ringrose is intelligent and makes good reads. An 81.7% tackle success rate doesn’t quite underline his defensive quality – some of his missed tackles prevent the opposition from getting into more dangerous positions – but there is definitely real scope for Ringrose to be a more dominant tackler. His reading of the game gets him into great positions in defence, where he can be more consistent in finishing the job.

Another area of Ringrose’s game that is ripe for growth is his kicking. The Leinster man has kicked just six times in play this season but it’s likely that Farrell and Ireland kicking specialist Richie Murphy will look for more from him in this area. Tactical kicking cannot come solely from the halfbacks, while attacking kicking is an essential try-scoring tool. Ringrose has worked on his low grubber kicks, so it would be positive to see more of that.

Munster’s Chris Farrell hasn’t quite been able to get fully into his stride yet this season as he was Ireland’s least utilised centre at the World Cup and has been part of a stuttering Munster team since. Nonetheless, he has shown his ability to do damage with ball in hand, beating 14 defenders and making five breaks.

robbie-henshaw-dejected-after-the-game Henshaw had a very frustrating World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While Farrell also offers an option at inside centre, it would be a surprise if it wasn’t one of Aki or Henshaw wearing the 12 shirt first up against Scotland.

Henshaw had a deeply frustrating World Cup due to a hamstring injury that meant he missed the opening three games and he understandably struggled to get up to speed with just one outing before the quarter-final defeat to New Zealand. He has gradually shifted up the gears with Leinster, however, benefiting from the quality of the forward play in the province’s pack, as have Ringrose and all the other Leinster backs. 

Henshaw is rated as a very strong defensive organiser and he obviously has an excellent understanding with Ringrose. Farrell may be tempted to back that cohesion, but Ringrose is also well accustomed to playing alongside Aki.

Aki is an explosive athlete and his tackling is a strength, the Connacht man having a midfield-leading 91.2% tackle success so far this season, while also earning two turnovers in tackles.

The 29-year-old also offers a breakdown threat that none of the other centres aside from McCloskey can provide. Aki has won a whopping 10 jackal turnovers this season, more than any other player in Ireland’s squad. It’s a handy skill to have in midfield. 

Aki’s ball-carrying in traffic is also strong and although his average gain of 2.21 metres per carry is the lowest of the centres in the squad, five clean breaks and 23 defenders beaten show he can do damage with ball in hand. 

Five offloads for Connacht demonstrate that Aki is willing and capable of playing the ball out of the tackle, perhaps an area where Farrell and attack coach Mike Catt can encourage more from the former Chiefs centre.

McCloskey is, it seems, third in line for the number 12 shirt, given he was left out of the original Six Nations squad and then added for the current camp in Portugal when Chris Farrell and a couple of other backs sustained minor injuries. 

bundee-aki It would be very hard to leave the explosive Aki out. Source: INPHO

Not that the Ulster man doesn’t deserve inclusion. He has been a dominant ball-carrying presence for his province with an average gain of 3.62 metres per carry, seven clean breaks, and 25 defenders beaten. 

10 offloads show McCloskey’s ability to keep the ball alive in contact, although the concession of 10 turnovers – double the other centres – shows there is scope for him to be more accurate. McCloskey has provided a notable four try assists and five break passes, showing he is far more than simply a direct carrying, with his ability to pull the ball back at the gain line sure to have impressed former rugby league man Farrell.

Six jackal turnovers mean he has been more prolific at the breakdown than all of Ireland’s forwards aside from Peter O’Mahony, Caelan Doris, and Josh van der Flier.

For next weekend, though, it looks like a case of Aki or Henshaw pairing up with Ringrose in midfield.

Keeping a cohesive Leinster combination of Sexton-Henshaw-Ringrose together will appeal to Farrell but Aki’s sheer power is hard to resist.

Possible Ireland midfield v Scotland: Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose. 

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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