fresh blood

Doris, Deegan, Burns, Kelleher, O'Toole - The new faces in the Six Nations squad

We take a closer look at the crop of uncapped players Andy Farrell has included in his 35-man group.

WITH A NEW head coach in the year after World Cup disappointment, there was always likely to be change in Ireland’s 2020 Six Nations squad.

Andy Farrell has naturally retained many of the players who were stalwarts of the Joe Schmidt era, but the returns of the previously-capped but recently-unrequired Jack O’Donoghue and Dave Heffernan is notable.

Devin Toner, Ultan Dillane, John Cooney, Dave Kearney, Rob Herring, Jack McGrath, Ross Byrne, and Will Addison are all included in Farrell’s squad after missing out on Schmidt’s 31-man World Cup selection. They will have points to prove.

On top of that, there is the excitement of five uncapped players in Farrell’s group, with some major potential in that selection of new faces.

Billy Burns

The former England U20 out-half qualifies for Ireland through his Cork-born grandfather and has earned a shot in the Six Nations squad with his strong form for Dan McFarland’s Ulster this season.

ulsters-billy-burns Burns has been in strong form for Ulster this season. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The injury to Joey Carbery has, of course, opened the door for Burns but his performances see him included ahead of Connacht’s Jack Carty, who featured at the World Cup.

25-year-old Burns joined Ulster from Gloucester in the summer of 2018 and has grown in the number 10 shirt since, looking more decisive and assured in the current campaign alongside Cooney.

Burns’ clever attacking kicking is a strength, with three kick assists for Ulster tries so far this season. His passing is often inventive – he has given 10 linebreak passes in this campaign – and he is well suited to Ulster’s high-tempo approach.

Burns is a willing defender but his lack of size means he can slip off tackles, with his 67% tackle success rate much lower than those of Ross Byrne and Johnny Sexton, who are both above 80% at this stage of the season. Farrell will likely also push Burns to challenge the line more on the ball, either fixing defenders or making darting runs.

Right now, Burns looks like third in line at out-half but he does offer Farrell an exciting option if he wishes to mix things up.

Caelan Doris

There has been excitement around Doris’ potential within the Leinster system for years now, with the Mayo man having excelled in schools rugby with Blackrock College. Doris shone at number eight for the Ireland U20s in 2017 before captaining the side at the World Championships in 2018 in his second season at that level.

caelan-doris-after-the-game Doris is a pure number eight. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

He impressed in 11 starts for Leinster in 2018/19 but has really moved up a gear this season, clearly benefiting from an extended pre-season with his province due to the World Cup. Listed at 106kg officially, Doris looks much heavier and is playing more powerfully than before.

A rounded number eight in the Kieran Read mould, 21-year-old Doris has a balanced skillset. He has the strength to excel in carries [beating 28 defenders and averaging 3.75 metres per carry this season] and tackles [96.5%].

He also as the handling ability to offload [five this season] or pass before contact. His work from the back of the scrum is generally composed, while he picks intelligent running lines off playmakers too, helping him towards five clean breaks in this campaign.

Standing 6ft 4ins tall, Doris has worked hard on his lineout skills with Leinster, having never jumped in school, and is now a genuine option in that area. He has also added a breakdown threat, with five jackal turnovers this season providing evidence of that.

While he is obviously inexperienced in senior rugby, Doris is a very exciting prospect for Irish rugby and is a genuine contender to start at number eight in the Six Nations.

Max Deegan

Named player of the tournament at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2016 after Ireland reached the final, Deegan is another whose potential has been well flagged.

leinsters-max-deegan Deegan is a classy operator in the back row. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Now 23, the Leinster man is starting to fully deliver on that promise with a string of stunning performances for his province. A number eight first and foremost, he has become a versatile option used across the back row by Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

Deegan has a classy skillset and often looks like he could have excelled as a midfielder thanks to his passing ability, decision-making and smooth running style, which has helped him towards 10 clean breaks this season.

As indicated by Deegan’s average gain of 2.73 per carry and tackle success rate of 87.5% this season, Doris can be more impactful in the big collisions but Deegan is well capable of beating defenders [22 in this campaign]. 

Deegan isn’t renowned as a turnover specialist but he is a strong lineout operator and his versatility across the back row makes him a fascinating prospect for Farrell, perhaps even in providing bench impact.

However Ireland view their back row pecking order, Deegan is another uncapped player who looks ready to step into Test rugby when called upon.

Tom O’Toole

The 21-year-old has been elevated into the Six Nations squad ahead of Munster’s John Ryan [21 Ireland caps] and Connacht’s Finlay Bealham [9 caps], as well as his Ulster team-mate, Marty Moore, who hasn’t played for Ireland since 2015 but is first-choice ahead of O’Toole for their province.

ulsters-tom-otoole Ulster tighthead O'Toole spent 10 years of his youth living in Australia. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Farrell is a fan of O’Toole’s dynamism and mobility and is keen to have an opportunity to work closely with him, while also allowing new Ireland scrum specialist John Fogarty to get hands-on with the tighthead prop.

A native of Drogheda, O’Toole moved to Australia when as a child due to his father’s work. He went on to play for the Queensland Schoolboys in 2015 before the IRFU lured him back to Ireland at the age of 16, when he enrolled in Campbell College in Belfast.

O’Toole was a standout in the Ulster Schools Senior Cup and then impressed for the Ireland U18s, U19s and U20s as he advanced into the Ulster academy system and earned a full senior contract before the start of this season.

He only started one Champions Cup game for Ulster so far but the province’s head coach McFarland – a scrummaging expert – rates him highly and Farrell is evidently of the same view. O’Toole has been penalised six times at the scrum this season and naturally still has much to learn in the set-piece at senior level.

It would be a big surprise to see O’Toole feature in Ireland’s opening Six Nations games, with Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter the proven options at tighthead, but the Ulsterman may be targeting involvement against Italy later in the campaign.

Rónan Kelleher

Another 21-year-old newcomer to the squad, Kelleher is viewed by many in Irish rugby as the strongest long-term prospect to follow in Rory Best’s footsteps and make the hooker position his own.

ronan-kelleher Kelleher has been sidelined with a hand injury in recent weeks. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

A powerful, skillful player, Kelleher exploded into the start of this season with Leinster to make himself the province’s first-choice hooker before suffering a hand injury in December. It was unfortunate timing, although it may ultimately prove to have been beneficial in giving him a physical breather and easing some of the hype.

Kelleher started playing rugby as an outside back before gradually working his way into the back row and forward towards hooker, where he settled full-time at the age of 16 in St Michael’s College. He showed his rich promise for the Ireland U20s in 2017 and 2018.

The hooker’s history outside the front row is evident in his ease on the ball, while his sheer athleticism allows him to offer real punch in the carry and tackle. Kelleher has had injury frustrations in recent years but, again, that long pre-season with Leinster looks to have done him the world of good in realising his athletic potential.

Kelleher’s lineout throwing success rate of 88.7% is the best of the three hookers in this Ireland squad, with Rob Herring at 86.1% and Dave Heffernan at 87.4%, although those figures are not solely about the hookers, with many moving parts in any lineout.

Still, Kelleher has all the tools required to be a major success in Test rugby and though Herring appears to be the front-runner to start Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Scotland, the Leinster man – who is set to be fit again before the championship begins – looks likely to get his debut sooner rather than later.

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