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Minimal changes for Ireland, Deegan to debut, and Murray still the man at 9

Keith Earls comes back into the matchday 23.
Feb 4th 2020, 5:34 PM 25,576 79

ANDY FARRELL HAS named his Ireland team and bench to face Wales in Dublin in the Six Nations on Saturday [KO 2.15pm, Virgin Media One].

You can see the matchday 23 here. 

Minimal changes

Many Ireland supporters will feel underwhelmed at this Ireland selection and that is understandable. There are mostly familiar faces from the World Cup, but that was always going to be the case. Ireland don’t have an infinite pool of Test-level players.

conor-murray Conor Murray starts at nine again. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Examine the team closely and there are a few key differences. Primarily, the thoroughly exciting and attacking Jordan Larmour is now Ireland’s starting fullback, with Rob Kearney gone from the squad altogether.

Andrew Conway, who many had hoped to see more of at the World Cup, now gets his second Six Nations start in a row on the right wing.

Caelan Doris’ very unfortunate head injury has deprived him of the chance to show his potential and ability but there is no doubt that had he impressed last weekend, he would remain in the starting team for the visit of Wales.

Farrell has opted for just two injury-enforced changes to his starting XV, which is also understandable. He’s keen to build on last weekend’s mixed performance against Scotland by backing his players to improve and execute the game plan more effectively.

37-times capped Robbie Henshaw, a Lions tourist in 2017,  did well off the bench last weekend and has been in good form for Leinster, while is a proven Test match player. He also has a strong understanding with Bundee Aki, so his selection is obvious and sensible with Garry Ringrose missing.

Meanwhile, Peter O’Mahony also delivered a good performance off the bench – clearly motivated by having been dropped – and his experience and ability at this level are also factors. 

Max Deegan and Jack O’Donoghue have been in great form for their provinces but Farrell doesn’t know how they would cope in a ferocious Six Nations contest against Wales. Deegan will, all going well, get a taste of it off the bench.

If we put ourselves in Farrell’s shoes, his selection is makes sense.

Deegan set to debut

The Ireland head coach is set to hand out his third new cap in two games with Leinster man Deegan named among the replacements.

max-deegan-with-virgile-bruni Deegan has been excellent for Leinster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The 23-year-old has shone for his province this season, combining an improved ability to win collisions in tighter channels with his longstanding strengths in slightly more space. A classy footballer, Deegan is well capable of passing, offloading and even kicking.

His rapid acceleration and footwork allow him to break tackles, while he has evidently been working hard on his tackle technique, increasingly employing low chop tackles to bring ball-carriers swiftly to ground.

It will be interesting to note where Farrell brings Deegan on if he does get that first cap. He is primarily a number eight but has played across the back row for Leinster, with his mobility and fitness allowing him to cover a lot of ground.

Deegan doesn’t yet bring a jackal threat defensively and he will continue to develop in that area, as well as in the consistency of his physicality. The former St Michael’s College man is a very exciting prospect for Irish rugby and capping another new face would be positive work for Farrell. 

Conor Murray still the man at nine

The Munster man has done enough to hold off the challenge of John Cooney again this week, having performed solidly against Scotland.

john-cooney John Cooney remains on the Ireland bench. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

His passing was largely sharp, although the Sam Johnson intercept has understandably stuck in most people’s minds since the game. Johnny Sexton put his hand up post-game for being slightly too wide and too flat but the scrum-half would nonetheless have been displeased at being picked off.

Murray kicked superbly as times last weekend, most notable a brilliant exiting box kick to the halfway line. There were a couple of weaker efforts in there too, but it’s difficult to be perfect in any game.

The sense at the moment is that any error Murray makes is being over-magnified. The good elements of his play are sometimes being ignored.

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It was noticeable that Murray carried the ball four times against the Scots, one of them coming from an excellent support line of Jordan Larmour’s first-half linebreak. He also delivered a nice assist for Johnny Sexton’s try and did well positionally in defence, often occupying the backfield along with Larmour.

Cooney impressed off the bench for Ireland, adding energy just as Murray appeared to be tapering off in his own. The Ulster man kicked superbly twice and made some excellent tackles as Ireland had to defend for much of the time he was on the pitch.

There is little doubt that the pressure remains on Murray but Cooney has to settle for another sub appearance this weekend.

Keith Earls at 23

With Henshaw promoted to the starting team, Ireland’s number 23 was open and the returning Keith Earls is the man to step up.

jordan-larmour-and-keith-earls Earls with Jordan Larmour at Ireland training. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Munster wing missed most of the build-up to the Scotland game due to a knee issue but he has returned to fitness in time for round two. 32-year-old Earls isn’t used to being a replacement but will likely embrace the role with the kind of team-first mentality he brings to everything.

Earls hasn’t played at fullback in a long time but Henshaw, Jacob Stockdale, and Andrew Conway can cover that position if needs be, while Earls can play on either wing. Ireland should be well able to cover for any injuries.

Earls will also be eager to get onto the pitch to remind Farrell of his quality as Conway and Stockdale start out wide for the second week of the Six Nations running.

On an IRFU contract until the summer of 2021, Earls won’t be fading out of the picture willingly.

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Murray Kinsella


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