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These are the players who need to impress Andy Farrell next weekend

With the Six Nations kicking off in just three weeks, the Ireland coach has some tough decisions to make. Saturday’s clash between Munster and Leinster should help him do so.

Doris and O'Mahony face off next Saturday.
Doris and O'Mahony face off next Saturday.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

IT WAS BILLED as the final trial, which immediately draws up images of packed courtrooms, but in reality all it gave us was an empty Lansdowne Road. There a motley crew with ambitions of playing for Ireland in the Five Nations battled it out, one team called the Probables, the other the Possibles.

Even Don King would have struggled to sell that scrap.

By the turn of the century, the pro game brought an end to this fixture, where 30 of Ireland’s best players went at it for 80 minutes, the dress rehearsal before the big show.

For very different reasons the stadium will be empty again next Saturday but already Leinster versus Munster is the nearest thing we have had to a final trial since the idea was ditched in the ‘90s.

The difference this time is that you can’t distinguish probable from possible through the colour of their shirt. But you can say with a greater degree of certainty that of the 30 players who will start the Munster/Leinster game next Saturday, six – assuming they remain injury free – will reappear on 7 February in Cardiff while the remainder have to persuade Andy Farrell they are worth their place for the championship opener.

The back three

On the one hand, there is the possibility of Farrell going with an all-singing, all-dancing combo of Jacob Stockdale, James Lowe and Jordan Larmour. Alternatively, the Ireland coach could cross the theoretical chamber and opt for a more conservative trio of Hugo Keenan, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls.

Realistically, there won’t be a policy debate between the great entertainers and the steady-as-she-goes crew. Instead, given his selection practices so far, Farrell will likely opt for the players in form, which is why Stockdale – recovering from injury, and idle next weekend, is in a tricky position.

stuart-hogg-and-jacob-stockdale Up in the air: Stockdale has an anxious wait until 6 February. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Farrell clearly rates him, standing by the Ulsterman even after his defensive horror shows in the autumn and if he was picking his team today, Keenan (at full back), Stockdale and Earls would probably be in it.

But of course it isn’t going to be named for another two-and-a-half weeks which raises so many questions ahead of next weekend’s interpro at Thomond Park.

Firstly, Keenan has entered the debate. The Leinster man is the best full back in the provincial game right now which is all well and good until you remember that the Six Nations championship is a different beast, not just to the Pro14 but even the Autumn Nations Cup. Even so, should Keenan be given a shot at 15 against Wales?

What does Farrell make of James Lowe’s defensive flaws? Has Larmour done enough since returning from injury to edge his way back in? Is Conway, who hasn’t had a game since 13 December, near the form he showed last season? Is Earls as good as he used to be?

At some stage, Farrell’s patience with Stockdale’s positional troubles in the backfield will wear thin; and the coach has already shown his willingness to give newbies a chance, which puts Keenan in a great position to nail down the No15 post next Saturday. Keenan or Stockdale at full back? Lowe, Stockdale or Conway on the left wing? Earls or Larmour on the right? All six players were handed starts by Farrell in 2020 which is why there are more questions about this area than any other. By 10pm next Saturday night, the coach should have a few answers.

Centre of excellence

Tom Daly is a man in form; Stuart McCloskey is a man who has rarely been out of form. And yet neither player gets the chance to enter this debate. How can they when Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell have already positioned themselves in the queue?

chris-farrell-scores-a-try Farrell's try scoring display has put him top of the queue. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Sympathy for Chris Farrell is justifiable given how often he has missed out in the past, cursed not just by injuries but also by the fact his preferred position is shared by Garry Ringrose, Leinster’s stand-out player in 2020.

With Ringrose unavailable for Cardiff with a jaw injury, Farrell’s chances of starting have increased significantly, especially as Aki has featured just twice for Connacht since November, a knee injury interrupting his winter. His inactivity should end next weekend, when Connacht play Ospreys, but unless he delivers an outstanding display, there is a strong case to be made for a Henshaw/Farrell pairing for the Six Nations opener.

Solid defensively, and gifted with better hands than Aki, Henshaw is also a shrewd decision-maker at inside centre. So while the conservative choice would be to go for an Aki/Henshaw reunion, should Farrell deliver next weekend, then the reward should be a starting slot on 7 February.

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Half backs     

Right there is no debate here. Johnny Sexton is captain, so he plays. That brings us to scrum half where the much maligned Conor Murray is continually compared to the player he used to be rather than the No9s in the other provinces.

The choices for Farrell in this department are more plentiful than ever – Jamison Gibson-Park offering a darting option off the bench even if Luke McGrath remains a smarter footballer. Kieran Marmion is also a good player, John Cooney a slightly better one. Have any of them done enough this season to dislodge Murray? The answer to that is a resounding no.

Front row

It is impossible to look beyond Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Andrew Porter starting on 7 February, Healy because Dave Kilcoyne has been out for so long; Herring because of Sean Cronin’s dart throwing; Porter because of Tadhg Furlong’s continued absence with a calf problem.

marcell-coetzee-and-sean-cronin Cronin impressed against Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

All Porter has to do between now and the Welsh game is stay injury free. With Furlong out, he stays in. End of story. However, Kilcoyne and Cronin have work to do, Kilcoyne to prove his match sharpness; Cronin to show that he deserves to edge out Ronan Kelleher and Dave Heffernan for a place on the Ireland bench.

Reproduce the performance he delivered against Ulster and he’ll be on the plane to Wales. Herring, however, remains a more reassuring presence at the set-piece, the steadying influence who can be relied upon to avoid a line-out crisis.

Second row

James Ryan starts in Wales. That’s as obvious as saying the landlord will knock on your door on the last day of each month. Ordinarily, you’d expect to see Iain Henderson there with him but Henderson is injured. That leaves Tadhg Beirne, whose excellence at the breakdown offers Farrell a number of choices.

tadhg-beirne Beirne was excellent last Saturday against Connacht. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

To start with, a Ryan/Beirne combo would allow the Ireland coach play a pure openside like Josh Van der Flier while also accommodating CJ Stander at 8. Those choices are taken away if Farrell went for Quinn Roux, who is a favourite with Ireland coaches, much less so with pretty much every pundit working on the media circuit.

Ultan Dillane’s ability to take the charge to Munster in the dying moments of last week’s game was magnificent but there is something about Roux that Irish coaches are constantly drawn to. Few others see it but that does not mean Roux won’t edge out his Connacht team-mate for a spot on the bench in Wales.

The back row

No matter what he does, Andy Farrell can’t go wrong here. If it’s Caelan Doris at No8 or No6, well that makes sense. If it’s the resourceful, tough, uncompromising CJ Stander in either of those shirts – well, we know what we get from him. The trouble is every opposition coach does too. The big Munster man may carry well but he rarely passes at the appropriate time.

Still, he keeps putting in big displays and had a good year in 2020. Peter O’Mahony’s season was more mixed but history has shown his capacity for producing key moments in key games, especially when the opposing hooker floats the ball into the Cardiff sky. Surely, a Doris/Stander/O’Mahony partnership is being strongly considered for the championship opener. But if not, fear not.

Van der Flier is a superb operator; Dan Leavy a star who is rediscovering his form after a lengthy period out. The list doesn’t end there, Rhys Ruddock, Ryan Baird, Gavin Coombes – scorer of seven tries in eight starts this season – and Jack Conan are credible back-ups. Only three can make it. Next Saturday will go a long way to helping Farrell decide who that will be.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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