Ireland celebrate a try against Italy. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Even with Keenan injury, Ireland have in-form players vying for places

Andy Farrell has strong options for his matchday 23 against Wales.

AFTER THREE CONSECUTIVE years of playing Italy in the middle week of the Six Nations, there’s a welcome change for Ireland this time around as they meet Wales in round three.

The Italians have already been dispatched, with a convincing 36-0 win in Round 2 continuing the momentum Ireland generated in their excellent win away to France in the opening game of the championship. Andy Farrell’s squad are in a good place ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Welsh [KO 2.15pm, RTÉ].

It has been a group effort from Ireland so far with Farrell using 30 players in the opening two matches. Joe McCarthy, Calvin Nash, Jeremy Loughman, and Harry Byrne have made their Six Nations debuts, with McCarthy and Nash impressing in the starting XV.

James Lowe, Jack Crowley, and Caelan Doris are the only three players to have completed all 160 minutes of both games so far, with Nash [159], McCarthy [147], Robbie Henshaw [143], and Hugo Keenan [136] next on the list.

With lots of his players delivering good performances and a few experienced figures set to return from injury this weekend, Farrell has had some nice selection options to consider for the Wales game.

The Ireland boss will name his matchday 23 on Thursday at 2pm and one experienced figure who probably won’t be in it is fullback Hugo Keenan, who has been such a durable and consistent presence for Ireland in the number 15 shirt throughout the Farrell era.

Keenan is a major doubt due to the knee injury he suffered against Italy two weekends ago. He didn’t train with Ireland last week and despite being named in the updated squad today, Keenan is still on the comeback trail.

If Keenan does miss out, his Leinster team-mate Ciarán Frawley is a strong contender to start at fullback against the Welsh. The versatile Skerries man made his debut for Ireland at out-half last summer in a World Cup warm-up game against Italy and then came on for 90 seconds at fullback at the end of the recent win over France.

andy-farrell-meets-stevie-mulrooney Andy Farrell with Ireland fan and anthem singer Stevie Mulrooney. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Frawley has had training reps across the backline in Ireland camp over the past few seasons, as well as starts at number 10 for the midweek side in New Zealand and Ireland A last year, but with Jimmy O’Brien and Mack Hansen sidelined at present, he seems likely to slot into the number 15 jersey if Keenan is missing.

Another Leinster man, Jordan Larmour, might be in the frame too. While he has predominantly been a wing recently, he had been developed as Ireland’s long-term successor to Rob Kearney before the emergence of Keenan. Larmour even started the first three games of the Farrell era at number 15 but those Tests in 2020 were his most recent caps at fullback. He hasn’t been playing at fullback for Leinster and came off the bench at outside centre on his Ireland return against Italy two weekends ago.

Still, Larmour can play at 15 even if Frawley appears well-suited to how Ireland operate.

Jacob Stockdale has featured at fullback for Ireland under Farrell too but again, Keenan’s rise ended that project. The Ulster man has been viewed almost exclusively as a left wing by province and country in recent times.

The other possibility is for out-half Crowley to shift to fullback as he did against Italy, with either Byrne or Frawley starting at 10, but Farrell might want the Munster man to continue his impressive rhythm as the frontline out-half given that he has started only five Tests there.

Keenan aside, Ireland appear to be in good health for round three.

Captain Peter O’Mahony is expected to return at blindside flanker after sitting out the Italian game, with Ryan Baird shining in that role in the Cork man’s absence.

Tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong is also due to return and will plan on picking up where he left off. The Wexford man has been in strong from recently, while it was a further positive for Farrell that Finlay Bealham was so good against Italy in Furlong’s absence.

It also looks like centre Garry Ringrose will be involved for the first time in this year’s Six Nations having recovered from a shoulder injury.

While Ringrose has been the long-term first-choice pick at outside centre, Henshaw has been excellent there in the wins over France and Italy. Bundee Aki continued his barnstorming form at number 12 against the French and Stuart McCloskey shone in that slot last time out.

Aki has been dealing with a knee issue recently but if he is fit, it wouldn’t be a shock for Farrell to return to the Aki-Henshaw combination that was so good in France. That might mean Ringrose covering the midfield and wing from the Irish bench. In truth, the midfield selection could go any way and still be strong.

peter-omahony Ireland captain Peter O'Mahony. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

In the second row, it’s anticipated that the starting pairing of McCarthy and Tadhg Beirne will be restored after excelling against France. The experienced James Ryan had a fine game in the win over Italy but may revert to the bench. Even with Iain Henderson carrying a foot injury this week, the second row looks like another area of strength.

The same applies to the back row. Indeed, if Farrell restores the starting trio of O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, and Doris, it could mean one of Baird or Jack Conan missing out on the matchday 23 if Ireland opt for a 5/3 bench split of forwards and backs instead of the 6/2 they used against France. 

However, if there are any physical concerns over someone like Doris, who has gone all out in the opening two games, Ireland could adjust comfortably with Conan and Baird ready to step up.

The only players included in the 36-man squad named today who have yet to feature in this Six Nations are Ringrose, Stockdale, hooker Tom Stewart, back row Nick Timoney, and uncapped Munster forwards Oli Jager and Tom Ahern. That group of players is full of quality, underlining why even Ireland’s bench spots have to be fought for.

Farrell must be enjoying having good options across his squad, particularly given how much of an injury crisis Ireland had to manage during their Grand Slam run last year.

It must feel like relatively plain sailing so far this time around but the Ireland boss is aware that the Six Nations can have surprises just around the corner.

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