# depth chart
Who starts alongside Sexton? - Ireland's halfbacks for the Six Nations
Conor Murray is under pressure from John Cooney and Luke McGrath at scrum-half.

HAVING DISCUSSED THE options available to Ireland head coach in his front row, second row, and back row already this week, we now turn our attention towards Andy Farrell’s backline options for the Six Nations.

Below, The42 outlines the decisions Farrell has to make in the halfback slots.



John Cooney [Ulster, 8 caps]
Luke McGrath [Leinster, 19 caps]
Conor Murray [Munster, 78 caps]

Scrum-half is the position that has sparked the most discussion around the Ireland squad coming into this Six Nations, with John Cooney’s eye-catching form for Ulster ensuring he has pressed his claims in impressive fashion.

29-year-old Cooney joins Murray and McGrath, who both travelled to the World Cup last year, to provide Farrell with three strong options for the number nine and 21 jerseys.

Murray has been Ireland’s first-choice in this position since the 2011 World Cup but is under more scrutiny and pressure than ever. The 30-year-old’s experience, having won 78 caps for Ireland and toured twice with the Lions, is valuable but Farrell will also closely examine form.

conor-murray-dejected Billy Stickland / INPHO Murray is the incumbent at scrum-half. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Although his height can sometimes mean slightly slower delivery off the deck than other scrum-halves, Murray is an excellent passer of the ball. His nine try assists and 8 linebreak passes have him slightly ahead of McGrath – 6 assists and 8 break passes – in terms of putting team-mates into good positions this season. With two try assists and one break pass, Cooney trails in these departments.

But the speed of Cooney’s delivery has been sharp, while he now offers a position-leading running threat. The Ulster man’s 15 clean line breaks and 27 defenders beaten are well ahead of McGrath’s 8 breaks and 11 defenders beaten, while Murray has not registered a clean break this season and has only beaten four defenders.

This running threat has helped Cooney towards a remarkable nine tries for Ulster so far this season and shows how much he has improved as a player, having not been regarded as a sniping danger earlier in his career. These figures also underline that Murray needs to bring more of the kind of running threat he offered previously.

Kicking is an important part of any scrum-half’s job and 30-year-old Murray has long been regarded as the leader in this area. However, Cooney and McGrath have made up ground.

14% of the Ulster scrum-half’s kicks this season have been won back by team-mates or forced an opposition error, while McGrath is at 16% and Murray at 15%. While the Munster man remains the most proven box-kicker of the three, Cooney and McGrath are improving.

Defensively, 26-year-old Leinster man McGrath is now arguably the best of the trio thanks to his aggressive tackling and intelligent reading of play. His 82.6% tackle success rate has him marginally ahead of Cooney and Murray, who Farrell will challenge to bring the kind of impact he is renowned for in defence.

One factor that could count against Cooney is the fact that he has conceded 24 turnovers of possession for Ulster this season, with Murray [13] and McGrath [9] showing more reliability with the ball. 

luke-mcgrath Dan Sheridan / INPHO Luke McGrath's fine form has gone under the radar. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

In terms of what they have actually done with the ball, the three scrum-halves have the following pass-run-kick breakdowns:

Murray = 87%-4%-9%
Cooney = 83%-5%-12%
McGrath = 85%-7%-8%.

Obviously, the balance of those percentages is affected by their province’s game plans and the flow of games, while Farrell will have his own ideas about how his scrum-halves operate.

One other factor to mention with regards to Cooney is his place-kicking. Currently operating at 84% off the tee for Ulster, the scrum-half is – by this measure – the most accurate kicker in the Ireland squad so far this season. It’s a very useful skill to have in a matchday 23, while Murray also offers a long-range goal-kicking option.

Away from form and statistics, the Ireland head coach must weigh up important factors such as mental skills, cohesion within the team, leadership, and communication. If Farrell is considering a change at number eight, he may be more hesitant to also pick a new scrum-half.

Murray has certainly not been playing poor rugby but the x-factor that Cooney is bringing for Ulster is tempting, while McGrath’s sharp form has gone under the radar. 

McGrath plays with Ireland out-half and captain Johnny Sexton at Leinster, while Murray has built up a very strong understanding with Sexton within the national team. Cooney has previously been a team-mate of Sexton’s but has the least experience alongside him. Farrell’s decision in this position will be telling.

Possible Ireland scrum-half v Scotland: Conor Murray.

Possible replacement scrum-half: John Cooney.



Billy Burns [Ulster, 0 caps]
Ross Byrne [Leinster, 3 caps]
Johnny Sexton [Leinster, 88 caps]

Having been named captain, Sexton will be Ireland’s first-choice out-half again in this championship. The 34-year-old has overcome a knee injury and while he hasn’t played since December, Farrell will be confident about his playmaker getting back up to speed.

James Crombie / INPHO Sexton with Farrell at the Six Nations launch. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Highly motivated by the new leadership role and having shown excellent form for Leinster upon his return from the World Cup, it is expected that Sexton will move towards the kind of quality performances he delivered for Ireland in 2018.

Joey Carbery and Jack Carty, who were at the World Cup, are missing this time around, with the Munster man sidelined due to injury, while Connacht’s Carty is only starting to come into form after a tricky couple of months after returning from Japan.

As such, Byrne and Burns are vying to back up Sexton. Leinster man Byrne has been excellent for his province since the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup, while the uncapped Burns has grown in maturity over the past two seasons since joining Ulster from Gloucester.

Three-times capped Byrne will feel he has done enough to earn the number two spot, having shown development in his game this season by offering more of an attacking threat when he is on the ball, beating 18 defenders. 

The Leinster man’s passing and decision-making also continue to improve, with 13 linebreak passes highlighting that, while his attacking kicking is an obvious strength – 10 of his kicks have been gathered by team-mates in this campaign, two of them directly setting up tries.

Burns excels with his attacking kicking too, with 16 of his kicks finding team-mates and three of them setting up tries for Ulster. The 25-year-old’s distribution has been effective – 12 break passes as well as five offloads – while the former Gloucester man is also challenging the line more himself, as evidenced by six clean breaks.

The big area of concern with Burns is his one-on-one tackling. Though brave and willing, his 66.5% tackle success is well behind Byrne’s 83.5% and Sexton’s 86.3% this season. Burns has been fairly secure in possession, though, conceding only four turnovers compared to Byrne’s 12. 

irelands-ross-byrne Billy Stickland / INPHO Byrne's most recent Ireland cap was an unhappy occasion. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

With Cooney the front-line kicker at Ulster, Burns hasn’t had chances to prove his ability in that area, while Byrne is operating at an 81% success rate off the tee so far this season.

24-year-old Byrne is regarded as a good tactical decision-maker and play-caller, which means he appears to be the most likely starter for Ireland at 10 if Sexton picks up an injury. With his improvement in individual attacking skills and his more reliable defence, Byrne would also appear favourite to back Sexton up off the bench.

However, Burns is a creative and instinctive attacking player who could offer something different as a replacement. The Ulster man will hope for a first cap in the coming weeks.

Possible Ireland out-half v Scotland: Johnny Sexton.

Possible replacement out-half: Ross Byrne.

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