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The Ireland depth chart: Big names back and two exciting prospects

Andy Farrell has a few players short of game time in his 36-man squad for the Six Nations.

ANDY FARRELL YESTERDAY named his 36-man Ireland squad for the 2021 Six Nations.

They kick off their campaign with a visit to Cardiff to face Wales on Sunday 7 February before a home clash with France the following weekend. 

Here, we break down Farrell’s squad by position groups, examining the pecking order and noting some of the players who narrowly missed. The squad is listed below along with [age, Ireland caps].

Loosehead prop:

Cian Healy [33, 104]
Dave Kilcoyne [32, 39]

irelands-dave-kilcoyne Dave Kilcoyne's return is a boost for Ireland. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The return of Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne after missing last autumn through injury is a real boost for Farrell, with the Limerick man providing an explosive ball-carrying option.

Kilcoyne will look to put pressure on incumbent starter Cian Healy, who will benefit from competition for his place. One concern is that Kilcoyne has only played 55 minutes this season after recovering from a long-term ankle issue, but Farrell clearly feels he can get up to speed again quickly. 

The Ireland boss has opted against including a third player in this position – Ed Byrne and Eric O’Sullivan drop out of the mix – but he indicated recently that he still views Andrew Porter as a possible option at loosehead, even if the Leinster man is likely to be important at tighthead in this championship.

With Healy and Kilcoyne’s age profile in mind, it is perhaps surprising that Farrell didn’t include a younger loosehead in O’Sullivan, Byrne, Peter Dooley, or Josh Wycherley while Munster’s James Cronin is also overlooked despite his consistent form.

Hooker:

Rob Herring [30, 16]
Ronan Kelleher [23, 6]

Dave Heffernan [29, 5]

rob-herring Herring has been in good form for Ulster. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Ireland have gone for the same three hookers as last autumn, with Herring in line to remain the first-choice in this position for the Six Nations.

The Ulster man’s form in recent months has been good as he has brought physical bite and nice handling skills for his province, while he is the most experienced Test player of this trio.

23-year-old Leinster man Kelleher has had an up-and-down time over the past year, which should be expected for any young hooker, but he is a superb athlete with potential for plenty of development.  

Connacht’s Heffernan is a dynamic and mobile presence around the pitch who can offer something different off the bench but he would dearly love a first Test start to show he can offer an impact as the main man too. 

Beyond these three, it’s unclear who Farrell sees as next in line. Niall Scannell, Kevin O’Byrne, and Rhys Marshall are fighting it out in Munster, Sean Cronin started for Leinster last weekend, while Shane Delahunt has been pushing Heffernan in Connacht. 

Tighthead prop:

Tadhg Furlong [28, 44]
Andrew Porter [25, 32]
Tom O’Toole [22, 0]

tadhg-furlong Furlong is another returning player. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Tadhg Furlong’s expected return for Leinster this Saturday after 11 months out of action is a huge boost for province and country. The 28-year-old will surely need time to get back to his best but when he hits that level, he is a key figure in Irish rugby.

Having been bedevilled by back, calf, and hamstring injuries since last year, Furlong is obviously badly short of game time coming into this Six Nations, meaning the highly-reliable and consistent Porter could remain the starter for now.

25-year-old Porter has certainly benefited from Furlong’s absence, even if he has had to withstand a major strain in accumulating a huge amount of minutes this season – with another 80 last weekend against Munster.

Meanwhile, the uncapped 22-year-old Tom O’Toole is back in the mix after missing the autumn through injury. Farrell is a big fan of the Ulster man’s athleticism and potential, but there is, of course, lots for O’Toole still to learn. 

He remains behind Marty Moore in the Ulster pecking order but Farrell is keen to fast-track him at Test level and a debut awaits in this championship. 

Connacht’s Finlay Bealham will be very disappointed to drop out of the squad, particularly given that he was asked to play out of position at loosehead on a bad day for Ireland against Georgia in the autumn. Munster’s John Ryan is also left out this time.  

Second row:

James Ryan [24, 32]
Iain Henderson [28, 58]
Tadhg Beirne [29, 17]
Quinn Roux [30, 16]

Ultan Dillane [27, 17]

tadhg-beirne Tadhg Beirne is in superb form. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

James Ryan’s dominant performance for Leinster against Munster last weekend underlined his status as one of the first names on Ireland’s team sheet as he carried and tackled with relentless impact and caused havoc in the lineout.

Opposite him, Tadhg Beirne delivered another supreme showing for the southern province as he won two characteristic turnovers close to Munster’s tryline but also made a real impact in the collisions – one aspect of his game that has been questioned. A skillful passer of the ball too, Beirne’s form is difficult to ignore.

Ulster captain Iain Henderson has, however, been Ryan’s most likely locking partner for Ireland whenever fit and he brings grunt, leadership, and Test experience to the mix. The 28-year-old hasn’t played since Ireland’s autumn campaign due to a knee injury, though, and it remains unclear exactly how fit he is.

The lock stocks are rounded out by two Connacht men in Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane. Roux brings a physical edge to proceedings and specialises in mauling, scrummaging, and rucking – the unglamorous heavy-duty work that coaches must pay attention to.

Dillane is a far more explosive presence around the pitch with his eye-catching ball-carrying ability, while he has worked hard on his set-piece basics. Just three Test starts in his 17 caps so far indicate how he has been viewed as an impact replacement.

21-year-old Leinster prospect Ryan Baird is among those to miss out in this department but he has a point to prove with his province after being slowed down by injury niggles in recent times.

Back row:

Caelan Doris [22, 7]
CJ Stander [30, 46]

Peter O’Mahony [31, 73]
Rhys Ruddock [30, 26]
Will Connors [24, 5]
Josh van der Flier [27, 28]

caelan-doris-tackled-by-duncan-taylor Caelan Doris is already a key player for Ireland. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Having finished the autumn as the starting back row, it would be a surprise if CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, and Caelan Doris aren’t in Ireland’s number six, seven, and eight jerseys against the Welsh. All three have been in good form for their provinces.

Another man who has delivered consistently strong performances is Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock, who deservedly returns to the fold. The hope now is that the athletically-improved 30-year-old has a real part to play for Ireland. His leadership, ability to win the gainline, and toughness could be useful against big teams like France and England.

Leinster opensides Will Connors and Josh van der Flier round out this crop of back rows and offer different skillsets. Connors is a defensive weapon who is increasingly showing his passing and offloading ability in attack, while van der Flier offers an infectious work rate. 

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Munster’s 22-year-old Gavin Coombes misses out despite his impressive form this season but his time will surely come, while the likes of Leinster pair Jack Conan and Dan Leavy, and Connacht’s Paul Boyle will be motivated to prove their points in the coming months.

Scrum-half:

Conor Murray [31, 87]
Jamison Gibson-Park [28, 5]
Craig Casey [21, 0]

craig-casey Craig Casey has already trained with Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This area of the squad was always going to spark debate. John Cooney, Luke McGrath, Kieran Marmion, and Caolin Blade would all have had hopes of getting the call but miss out.

Conor Murray remains the obvious first-choice given his good form for Munster since the autumn, while Farrell has also opted for the rather different qualities Jamison Gibson-Park and Craig Casey offer. 

Gibson-Park’s creativity is a strength and he can bounce out of the game plan with his good decision-making and sniping threat, while his solid cameo on the wing last weekend showed that he’s a rounded player.

The selection of uncapped 21-year-old Casey is an exciting one. The Limerick man is a mature young man whose rapid-fire passing is a real strength. He remains behind Murray at Munster but his form has partly prompted the 31-year-old’s good displays.

As for those who miss out, Cooney may be wondering whether he should have opted to play for Scotland when given the opportunity a number of years ago.

McGrath was superb for Leinster last weekend against Munster but Farrell prefers Gibson-Park’s strengths, while the Connacht duo of Marmion and Blade might be suffering from their province’s lack of consistency.

Out-half:

Johnny Sexton (captain) [35, 95]
Billy Burns [26, 3]
Ross Byrne [25, 11]

johnny-sexton Johnny Sexton continues as Ireland captain. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

35-year-old Sexton remains the main man in this squad and Farrell will be pleased that initial worries over the out-half’s hamstring appear to be receding now ahead of the Wales clash.

He is backed up again by Billy Burns and Ross Byrne, both of whom were part of the autumn campaign last year. Ulsterman Burns made more of an impact in that window and seems likely to be the bench option.

That said, Byrne showed real composure off the bench for Leinster last weekend with the game-changing attacking kick for Jordan Larmour’s try and then a calm conversion from wide on the right.

The 25-year-old’s two Test starts so far have come against England, with Ireland struggling collectively on both occasions, but he will be feeling the need to underline his talent in the international game.

Connacht’s Jack Carty hasn’t been able to convince Farrell of his merits, though it must have been tempting to include his tactical kicking and creative qualities to offer something different.

The sight of Joey Carbery with the Munster squad at Thomond Park last weekend was encouraging, with the 25-year-old making progress with his recovery from a long-term ankle issue.

Irish rugby has a number of promising young playmakers in Munster pair Ben Healy and Jack Crowley, as well as Leinster’s Harry Byrne and Ciarán Frawley – now playing at 12 for Leinster – but they will look for more game time with their provinces for now. 

Byrne has been involved in several Ireland camps already and Farrell needs him to push through with Leinster, having been unfortunate to get injured just before what would have been his first Champions Cup start in December.

Centre:

Garry Ringrose [26, 30]
Robbie Henshaw [27, 47]

Bundee Aki [30, 30]
Chris Farrell [27, 14]
Stuart McCloskey [28, 4]

robbie-henshaw-is-tackled-by-fraser-brown-and-darcy-graham Robbie Henshaw is in excellent form. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Leinster inside centre Robbie Henshaw is the most in-form of this crew and has surely done enough to earn the number 12 shirt, particularly with Aki only just back from a knee issue. Elusive on the ball, dominant in the air, and energetic in defence, Henshaw is in a good place.

Garry Ringrose is nailed-on as Ireland’s outside centre given his consistency, creative footwork, and defensive intelligence. Aki should not be discounted, of course, with his power and enthusiasm usually very effective.

Munster’s Chris Farrell hasn’t been able to break past that front-line trio when they’re fit but he remains a strong option in midfield. It is a little surprising that Farrell has also included Stuart McCloskey – who will hope to at least feature on the pitch for Ireland, given how he remains so important for Ulster.

Tom Daly was very close to selection following his excellent form for Connacht and Farrell has encouraged him to keep doing what he has been doing. Younger prospects like Ulster’s James Hume will hope they can impress in the coming months too.

Back three:

Keith Earls [33, 88]
Jordan Larmour [23, 24]

Hugo Keenan [24, 6]
Andrew Conway [29, 24]
James Lowe [28, 2]
Shane Daly [24, 1]

jordan-larmour-scores-the-first-try Jordan Larmour is back after missing the autumn. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Jacob Stockdale is missing due to a knee injury and it’s unclear whether he will recover in time to feature in this year’s championship.

Leinster’s Jordan Larmour – who missed the autumn with a shoulder injury – returns having racked up two starts for Leinster in recent weeks, showing off his delightful footwork but having trouble in the air against Munster under Conor Murray’s strong box kicking and with Shane Daly applying pressure. That said, it’s worth remembering that Larmour was Ireland’s first-choice fullback prior to injury.

Hugo Keenan’s excellent form for Leinster makes him favourite for the number 15 shirt in many people’s eyes. He has been calm and composed in the backfield, hard-working off the ball, and dangerous on it, as well as increasingly stepping up as a distributor. 

Keith Earls has had a relatively quiet run of form and will hope to get on the ball more often with Ireland, with his nous making him a valuable member of the back three club.

Andrew Conway and James Lowe have been included despite their total lack of game time for Munster and Leinster in recent months but both are now clear of their injury issues and Farrell hasn’t been too quick in forgetting the qualities they possess. Lowe has real game-breaking ability that Farrell is a fan of.

24-year-old Daly is included again having made a debut last autumn and one senses that the confident Cork man could explode if given the chance. He has stepped up with poise every time Munster have asked him to and would love to be handed responsibility in the number 15 shirt for province and country.

Munster’s Mike Haley has been in strong form and is unlucky to miss out, while versatile 24-year-old Jimmy O’Brien has been good for Leinster but picked up a hamstring injury last weekend, a game Dave Kearney missed through injury. 

Ulster pair Robert Baloucoune and Will Addison are likely to come back into the mix when they recover from current injury issues, while Alex Wootton has been doing well in Connacht. Longer-term, Ulster’s 20-year-old Ethan McIlroy has impressed in recent months and will surely come onto the Ireland radar.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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