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Dublin: 20 °C Wednesday 5 August, 2020
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A new hooker and props applying pressure - Ireland's front row for the Six Nations

Who would you like to see Andy Farrell pick in jerseys number one to three in a week’s time?

IRELAND BOSS ANDY Farrell will name his first matchday 23 this day next week, offering us the first real insight into what he values when it comes to team selection.

While there will naturally be a strong degree of overlap from the end of the Joe Schmidt era at last year’s World Cup, Farrell has given himself scope for change with a fresh-looking Six Nations squad that features five uncapped players and a group of men who missed out on travelling to Japan.

Over the coming days, The42 will assess Farrell’s options across the pitch, examining the front row, second row, back row, halfbacks, midfield, and back three separately.

We start today with a closer look at Ireland’s nine front-row players as Farrell continues to ponder his selection for the clash with Scotland in Dublin in two weekend’s time

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Loosehead prop

Cian Healy [Leinster, 95 caps]
Dave Kilcoyne
[Munster, 36]
Jack McGrath
[Ulster, 56]

Healy and Kilcoyne travelled to the World Cup last year, with Andrew Porter providing cover on the loosehead side, while McGrath missed out on selection but has impressed for Ulster since a move north from his native Leinster during the summer.

jack-mcgrath-with-aaron-smith Jack McGrath is back in the mix at loosehead. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Kilcoyne surged past McGrath in the pecking order last season and asked questions of Healy’s status as the first-choice loosehead. Healy’s experience and quiet leadership of the front row are likely to be valued by Farrell, while he is in good form too.

The Leinster man has played the most minutes of the three looseheads this season [599 to McGrath's 469 and Kilcoyne's 452] but the other two have had injuries – Kilcoyne sidelined by a calf issue post-World Cup while McGrath had thumb surgery in November.

Kilcoyne is renowned as the most destructive ball-carrier of the three, with his position-leading average of 1.3 metres per carry and total of nine defenders beaten this season backing that up. Healy’s carrying is excellent too, though – he stands at 0.97 metres per carry on average and has beaten five defenders. The heaviest of the trio, McGrath carries the least frequently but averages just over 1 metres per carry.

Ulster’s style of play means McGrath’s handling skills have been to the fore this season, with 12 passes and 3 offloads allowing him to show his ability in this area, although it’s notable that Kilcoyne has developed this side of his game, throwing 9 passes and 2 offloads.

Defensively, Healy has the lowest tackle completion rate at 84% compared to Kilcoyne and McGrath on 90%, but the Leinster loosehead has made five turnovers [4 of them coming in tackles] while neither of his rivals have earned one yet in this campaign.

Schmidt rated Healy’s ruck work very highly, although McGrath and Kilcoyne both have qualities here too.

cian-healy-and-dave-kilcoyne Healy and Kilcoyne were Ireland's looseheads at the World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The set-piece is a pivotal consideration in this position. Healy is regarded as an excellent lineout lifter, while his scrum prowess is well established. McGrath has been the least penalised at scrums so far this season with 2 penalties compared to Kilcoyne’s 3 and Healy’s 4.

However, it’s worth remembering that the majority of McGrath’s minutes have come in the Guinness Pro14, which leaves him with ground still to make up on Healy and Kilcoyne. The fact that three-times capped Lion McGrath is back in the mix is a positive for Ireland and he will bring a competitive edge to camp.

Healy’s experience and good form make him the leading contender for the number one shirt, but it will be intriguing to see how highly Farrell values Kilcoyne’s rampaging ball-carrying. If Healy is involved in all the games in this championship, he will hit 100 caps for Ireland.

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Hooker

Dave Heffernan [Connacht, 1]
Rob Herring
[Ulster, 8]
Rónan Kelleher [Leinster, 0]

None of these three hookers were part of Ireland’s initial 31-man World Cup squad, although Herring was called out to Japan as an injury replacement just before the quarter-final defeat to New Zealand.

Rory Best has retired, while Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell have missed out on selection, meaning Ireland will have a new look in jerseys number two and 16. 

dave-heffernan-and-aj-macginty Heffernan won a cap against the US in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Herring is the most experienced candidate with eight caps and his strong showing on the 2018 tour of Australia will be fairly fresh in Farrell’s mind, while the 29-year-old’s performances for Ulster in the current campaign have also been good. Best’s retirement has allowed Herring to finally enjoy first-choice status at Ulster, developing his confidence.

21-year-old Kelleher is the new kid on the block. He exploded into this season with Leinster on the back of a lengthy pre-season to make himself first-choice ahead of more experienced players. A superb athlete, Kelleher has the kind of dynamism that is hard to ignore.

Heffernan, meanwhile, was an unexpected selection from Farrell, although he was part of Ireland’s 24-hour camp in December. The new Ireland boss appreciates Heffernan’s mobility and impact around the pitch. Heffernan won his single Ireland cap on the 2017 tour of the US and Japan but swiftly faded out of contention under Schmidt.

Kelleher is the most explosive athlete of the trio, as evidenced by his position-leading average of 2.2 metres per carry so far this season, as well as five clean linebreaks. Herring and Heffernan are averaging around 1.5 metres per carry and both are capable of breaking tackles.

All three hookers are comfortable passing the ball when required, while they are also solid defenders with tackle completion rates of 90% or over. 

Lineout throwing is a major part of the hooker’s duties of course, and Kelleher has the highest throwing success at 88.5%, with Heffernan just behind on 87.5%, while a couple of notable wobbles from Herring in recent weeks have contributed to his 84.5% rate.

leinsters-ronan-kelleher Kelleher has been sidelined since early December. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

With a whopping 930 minutes of action so far this season, Herring has essentially played twice the amount of rugby Kelleher and Heffernan have in recent months. 

Kelleher’s hand injury, which has kept him sidelined since early December was frustratingly-timed after he had claimed the starting hooker slot for Leinster in the Champions Cup. That injury ensures he won’t have played for eight weeks by the time Ireland kick-off their Six Nations campaign against the Scots.

Still, the scale of Kelleher’s potential is tempting and he is set to be fit for the Scotland clash. The more battle-hardened Herring seems the obvious choice for the first game, possibly with Kelleher backing him up, but few would bet against the 21-year-old making Ireland’s number two jersey his own sooner rather than later.

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Tighthead prop

Tadhg Furlong [Leinster, 41]
Andrew Porter [Leinster, 23]
Tom O’Toole [Ulster, 0]

The inclusion of Ulster’s O’Toole at tighthead was another of Farrell’s surprises in his Six Nations squad, with the 21-year-old having largely backed up Marty Moore for his province. World Cup squad member John Ryan is left out of this Six Nations squad too.

O’Toole’s athleticism and mobility, as well as his toughness, appeal to Farrell in the longer-term but it would be unexpected if O’Toole features in the opening games of the Six Nations.

tadhg-furlong-tackled-by-ardie-savea Furlong makes a carry at the World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Furlong is very much the incumbent, having made Ireland’s number three jersey his own since succeeding Mike Ross in 2016. While he wasn’t at his best in the World Cup, like many other Irish players, Furlong has obvious qualities and is still only 27. 

But Porter, an ultra-strong 24-year-old who continues to improve at tighthead, has been applying pressure for both province and country in recent times, including at the World Cup.

Furlong is the best ball-carrier of the three, beating 15 defenders and averaging 1.63 metres per carry to Porter’s 4 defenders beaten and 1.19 metres per carry this season. All three props are comfortable delivering passes, something new attack coach Mike Catt may tap into as Ireland build in the coming seasons.

Their mobility makes the three Ireland tightheads good defenders too – O’Toole is showing real promise in this area with a 97% tackle completion rate – but Porter is clearly the biggest turnover threat with his high-quality jackaling at the breakdown.

Furlong is well-known as a strong and stable scrummager, while Porter continues to improve in this area, conceding just one scrum penalty this season. With six scrum penalties against him in the current campaign, O’Toole is still learning but Ireland scrum coach John Fogarty will enjoy working with the youngster.

andrew-porter-celebrates-after-the-game Porter has been in superb form this season. Source: Jayne Russell/INPHO

Furlong and Porter – like their Leinster team-mate Healy – also offer an elite work-rate around the pitch, something that isn’t always obvious on first viewing. It’s likely that the competition between this tighthead pair will only grow in the coming seasons.

Farrell will push Furlong to get back to the dominant performances he is capable of, with the Wexford man arguably the leading tighthead in world rugby when at his peak in 2018.

Rolling Porter off the bench during the Six Nations or even rotating the starts between himself and Furlong will mean Ireland should have an impactful duo under Farrell.

Possible Ireland front row v Scotland: Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong

Possible Ireland bench front row: Dave Kilcoyne, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter

Tomorrow on The42, we’ll take a closer look at Andy Farrell’s options in the second row.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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