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Dublin: 10°C Thursday 25 February 2021
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Full steam ahead: Munster and Leinster to dominate Irish team selection

There could be as many as 13 players from the two provinces in Ireland’s side for the Six Nations opener on 7 February.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Jan 24th 2021, 3:00 PM

THE MAN IN the bobble hat brushed the snowflakes off his green parker and hopped from foot to foot. On this night, trying to stay warm would prove impossible.

Weather issues aside, the man was clearly enjoying himself, briefly turning around during a break in play to engage in small talk with a reporter about the endurance levels required by NFL players in a Wisconsin winter.

There weren’t many others to chat to. Aside from stewards, officials, players, coaches and press, the man in the bobble hat was one of only two spectators allowed into Thomond Park last night. Then again, it would take a brave person to turn Andy Farrell and Paul O’Connell away.

This evening the pair will sit down with their fellow coaches to finalise their squad for the Six Nations championship – and if there is one thing we’ve learned about Farrell’s selections so far, it’s his willingness to take risks. A year ago it was Caelan Doris and Ronan Kelleher. As 2020 went on, nine more debutants would get their shot. Don’t be surprised, then, if we see Gavin Coombes’ name on tomorrow’s squad list.

In fact, if pressed, Farrell could pick a combined XV from the Munster and Leinster players on show last night and believe he’d have a side good enough to topple the Welsh. It won’t come to that. Rob Herring and Jacob Stockdale, providing they remain injury free, will break up the Munster/Leinster dominance.

But will anyone else? Bundee Aki has barely featured since the Autumn Nations Cup; Iain Henderson’s injury woes have continued; the John Cooney versus Conor Murray debate has ceased to be a discussion; Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux are competing against one another for a place on the bench while Kieran Marmion is hoping Luke McGrath hasn’t skipped the queue.

So, here is how Ireland’s starting XV for the opening game of the Six Nations is shaping up after last night’s winter fest in Thomond.

FULL-BACK

Hugo Keenan has this nailed down. Despite Farrell’s faith in Stockdale’s ability to transfer his considerable skills into a No15 shirt, the fact remains that the Ulsterman is a defensive liability at full-back, whereas Keenan has inherited Rob Kearney’s positional reliability. What’s more he can spot a pass and deliver it. Ask Jordan Larmour about that.

jordan-larmour-scores-a-try Larmour's try resulted from Keenan's creativity. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WINGS

There’s serious thought required here. With Larmour and Stockdale, you get a bit of showbiz – both men capable of doing what others can’t. Larmour was having a nightmare for 70 minutes last night, targeted repeatedly in the air by Conor Murray. Yet even though Shane Daly towered over him, when the headlines were eventually written, Larmour was the one whose name appeared in bold ink.

He starts in Cardiff, end of. Stockdale, too, simply has to be there. All he needs to do is point to his statistics – 33 caps, 18 tries. Only six Irishmen have scored more. And people are talking about leaving him out?

The reason they are doing so is twofold, firstly because the Ulsterman’s defence has been awful; secondly because only two of those 18 tries have come in his last 12 internationals. Then you throw in the credible list of alternatives, James Lowe, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, even Daly or the in-form Dave Kearney.

A lot can happen in two weeks – an injury, one player losing form, another finding it – but at this stage, the likeliest – and best – scenario is Keenan, Stockdale and Larmour getting the nod in Cardiff.

CENTRES

It was a fascinating battle last night between four top class operators; DeAllende/Farrell towering over Henshaw/Ringrose in physical terms before they swiftly discovered the latter pair’s mental toughness.

robbie-henshaw-is-tackled-by-damian-de-allende The Henshaw/De Allende battle was absorbing. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Come 7 February, both Leinster men should start. Henshaw, despite his 47 caps, three Six Nations titles, Champions Cup win, four Pro14 crowns, remains strangely underrated, even though he ticks every box in a midfielder’s checklist. He has been in exceptional form lately, to the degree that if Farrell is picking the team on the here and now, rather than on what Aki did in previous seasons, then it’s the Westmeath man who’ll get the nod on Sunday week. Next to him will be Ringrose which is desperately unfair on Farrell, who just seems luckless. But in international sport, fairness doesn’t enter the discussion.

HALF-BACKS

Yet again, Johnny Sexton was taken off as a ‘precaution’ last night. It’s becoming a recurring theme, to the extent that it’s worth noting that Sexton has lasted the full 80 minutes in a Leinster shirt on just two occasions since October 2018. Yes, some of those decisions to replace him have been tactical, but if you think back to earlier in 2018, prior to landing that match-winning drop-goal in Paris, Sexton had to self-medicate to cure himself of cramp midway through that 41-phase move.

johnny-sexton-goes-down-with-an-injury Sexton went down with a hamstring injury. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That’s how dependent Ireland were on him then and even if he’ll bristle at the idea that age is catching up on him, it’s hard to ignore the evidence that he has started four games for Leinster this year and has been taken off before the 54th minute in three of those.

Now, after that lengthy preamble, another fact remains. He’s still Ireland’s best No10. Plus he’s their captain. So he starts, as does Conor Murray, who may be unable to make as many successful breaks as he used to, but who still should be judged against his 2021 rivals rather than constantly compared to the Conor Murray of 2016. McGrath, after last night’s showing, deserves to be his back-up in Cardiff.

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FRONT ROW

No discussion needed; Cian Healy, Herring and Andrew Porter start. Dave Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin and Tom O’Toole are the probable replacements although John Ryan has more than a decent case to get a jersey.

SECOND ROW

We keep hearing how Tadhg Beirne is too light to be an international lock and then we continue to see him score crucial tries, make try-saving turnovers and pop up at critical moments in big games. While Henderson/James Ryan is the No1 combo, Beirne has to be guaranteed a spot on the team when either man is absent.

james-ryan-and-tadhg-beirne Ryan and Beirne compete against one another - they'll likely be paired in Cardiff. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Next in line are Roux and Dillane, the former being a coach’s favourite because of his readiness to do the jobs no one really fancies. Dillane’s dynamism off the bench is hard to ignore, though.

BACK ROW

For all this department’s depth, it’s hard to see how Farrell will overlook a Doris/Stander/O’Mahony combo in Cardiff, even though Josh van der Flier’s energy in the final quarter provided the Ireland coach with an additional thought to carry into the selection debate. Will Connors is a favourite of Farrell’s while Coombes deserves to get into camp. But if fit, O’Mahony has to start. He’s a leader, a line-out nerd, far from finished, his skill-set providing much-needed balance to the back-row.

Ireland v Wales possible starting XV

15: Hugo Keenan

14: Jordan Larmour

13: Garry Ringrose

12: Robbie Henshaw

11: Jacob Stockdale

10: Johnny Sexton

9: Conor Murray

8: Caelan Doris

7: Peter O’Mahony

6: CJ Stander

5: Tadhg Beirne

4: James Ryan

3: Andrew Porter

2: Rob Herring

1: Cian Healy

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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