Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

How different could Ireland's Six Nations squad be to the RWC?

Andy Farrell’s group is likely to be familiar as they defend their Grand Slam title.

WITH JUST OVER four weeks until Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations against France in Marseille, the return of international rugby is looming.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, who has signed a new deal until 2027, is preparing to launch the next chapter with his team after coming up short in their mission to win the World Cup. First up, it’s the defence of their Grand Slam title.

There will be a new Ireland captain this year following the retirement of out-half Johnny Sexton, meaning the number 10 shirt is up for grabs too.

Farrell has named his Six Nations squad on 19 January for the past two years and it’s expected to be announced at a similar stage this time around, in the days leading into Round 4 of the Champions Cup pool stages.

With each year in charge, Farrell has named a bigger Six Nations squad. In 2020, he announced a 35-player squad. It was 36 players in 2021, then 37 in 2022, and 38 for last year’s squad announcement. Having named 42 players in his World Cup training squad last summer, Farrell seems likely to have around 37 or 38 in his group his year.

Ireland will travel to Portugal for their now customary pre-Six Nations warm weather training camp before moving on to France for that opening clash with les Bleus at the impressive Stade Vélodrome on 2 February.

While there are usually calls for head coaches to dramatically change their squads in the wake of World Cups, all the more so following a quarter-final exit, it doesn’t seem likely that Farrell will rip up the script that has helped Ireland to success in recent years. He will be going all out to win the championship with his strongest available team.

There is scope for a slightly refreshed edge within his wider squad but the vast majority of the players who featured at the World Cup only three months ago are still available to Farrell.

The captaincy decision is obviously an important one, while there is understandable focus on who Farrell will opt for as his new starting out-half.

irelands-jack-crowley Munster out-half Jack Crowley. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Jack Crowley was Sexton’s back up for the crucial World Cup games and has been in good form since, particularly in Munster’s Champions Cup defeat to Exeter. With Ross Byrne still sidelined due to an arm injury, Crowley is the favourite to be at number 10 in Marseille.

If Byrne proves his fitness and takes a Six Nations squad place to compete with Crowley, it will be intriguing to see who Farrell opts for as Ireland’s third out-half. The versatile Ciarán Frawley was part of the World Cup training group and made his Test debut at out-half in the warm-up game against Italy but missed out on the final squad.

Joey Carbery is due back for Munster in the coming weeks, while Leinster’s Harry Byrne hasn’t featured for Ireland since being ruled out of the 2022 tour of New Zealand due to injury. Ulster’s Billy Burns hasn’t played for Ireland since 2021, while Jack Carty’s last cap was in the 2022 Six Nations.

23-year-old Crowley and 28-year-old Ross Byrne look like certainties for the Six Nations if they’re fit and 26-year-old Frawley has been strongly involved as an out-half under Farrell in recent years even if not winning more than one cap.

While there’s change ahead at out-half without Sexton, things could be far more settled in other positions.

The World Cup hooker trio of Dan Sheehan, Rónan Kelleher, and Rob Herring may be supplemented by Tom Stewart, who was unlucky to miss out on the trip to France. The tighthead group of Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham, and Tom O’Toole will probably be involved if available, although new Munster signing Oli Jager is now on the radar.

Andrew Porter remains a key man at loosehead, while Cian Healy is back from injury having missed the World Cup. Now 36, Healy has previously said he would like to play on for Ireland. Munster man Dave Kilcoyne is sidelined at present but his provincial team-mate Jeremy Loughman is fit after being part of the World Cup squad in Healy’s absence. Leinster’s Michael Milne hasn’t played this season due to a shoulder injury be spent a week with Ireland during last year’s Six Nations, while his 21-year-old provincial team-mate Jack Boyle is a fine prospect.

The lock quartet of James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, and Joe McCarthy are sure to be back, with McCarthy in particularly impressive form since he showed his promise during the World Cup. The 22-year-old’s dynamism is hard to ignore.

Kieran Treadwell was the other lock in the training squad last summer. Munster’s Edwin Edogbo was flying until his season-ending injury, while 29-year-old Joe Joyce has been playing well for Connacht, but Farrell already has four strong frontline locks.

irelands-joe-mccarthy-jack-conan-and-finlay-bealham Leinster second row Joe McCarthy. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The excellent form of Leinster’s Ryan Baird, who was at the World Cup, and the uncapped Munster man Tom Ahern as hybrid lock/blindsides is exciting for Farrell and it will be intriguing to see if he brings 23-year-old Ahern into the fold. Baird has been thriving under new Leinster defence coach Jacques Nienaber and looks ready to be a more prominent figure at Test level.

World Cup back rows Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, and Josh van der Flier are all fit, while Munster’s Peter O’Mahony is due back from injury soon. Gavin Coombes and Cian Prendergast were the two to miss out on the World Cup after training with Ireland last summer, the latter coming very close to earning a spot, while Will Connors may have pushed himself back into the mix with some strong performances for Leinster.

Three-times capped Ulster man Nick Timoney has been playing well, Leinster’s Scott Penny has trained with Ireland, and Munster’s John Hodnett has nailed down the number seven shirt in his province. Ulster’s Dave McCann had been impressing earlier this season before an ankle injury.

The scrum-half group of Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray, and Craig Casey has been settled for a while now, with Caolin Blade generally next in line in that position. Ulster’s 33-year-old John Cooney is ahead of uncapped 22-year-old Nathan Doak for their province, but neither has been in Farrell’s squads in recent seasons.

Similarly, the centre quartet of Bundee Aki, Stuart McCloskey, Robbie Henshaw, and Garry Ringrose will be hard to break up. Jamie Osborne of Leinster was hit by injury when he had started to show his promise again, while Ulster’s James Hume is also sidelined after an impressive return to form in midfield for his province.

Munster man Antoine Frisch has continued to improve, adding more physicality to complement his creativity, while Connacht’s uncapped Cathal Forde had a strong start to the season. But again, the four incumbent frontline centres will be hard to budge.

There has been one other post-World Cup retirement aside from Sexton, with wing Keith Earls hanging his boots up to leave space for someone to come firmly into contention out wide.

First-choice left wing James Lowe has yet to play this season as he deals with a foot issue, even Ireland hope to have him back for the Six Nations, and there is injury concern for right wing Mack Hansen too after a blow to the shoulder against Munster two days ago.

irelands-jimmy-obrien Leinster back Jimmy O'Brien. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Jimmy O’Brien had an excellent cameo on the right in the World Cup quarter-final after replacing Hansen, while Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale is in good form for Ulster on the left wing having missed out on the World Cup.

Munster man Calvin Nash trained with Ireland last summer and won his first cap in the warm-ups, while Leinster’s Jordan Larmour and Ulster’s Rob Baloucoune will be keen to force their way back into contention. Nash, Baloucoune and Larmour are still only 26, while O’Brien and Stockdale are 27.

Hugo Keenan will remain a key man for Ireland at fullback, where O’Brien and Hansen offer alternative options. Munster’s Shane Daly has been playing well this season and covers the wing and fullback but was last capped back in 2021.

On occasions in the past, Farrell has included ‘development players’ for a week’s training with his senior squad and if he chooses to go down that road, the likes of Boyle, fellow Leinster loosehead Paddy McCarthy, Munster back row Brian Gleeson, and Leinster out-half Sam Prendergast might be considered.

But Farrell’s focus will be firmly on winning the Six Nations and becoming the first team to win back-to-back Grand Slams since France in 1998.

With that in mind, continuity from the Grand Slam and World Cup squads last year is to be expected.

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