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The major Six Nations concern for Wales and England ahead of World Cup 2023

Wales and England might regret stepping onto the coaching merry-go-round.

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3 hot takes as Andy Farrell names Ireland team to play Wales

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

For the major headline in the Ireland team selection to face Wales in Guinness Six Nations round one, look no further than the absence of the name of Tadhg Furlong from the teamsheet. A starting British and Irish Lions tighthead in all six Test matches on their last two tours, the value of the 30-year-old to Farrell’s Ireland pack is inestimable.


He had only played once for Leinster, the first half of a mid-October URC game at Connacht, when he was thrust into the limelight as one of the few Farrell picks to start all three of the Ireland Autumn Nations Series matches.

Furlong was even made a first-time skipper for the mid-series win over Fiji and while he returned to Leinster fit and ready to embrace their hectic December/January programme, he pulled up lame when subbing on December 3 versus Ulster.

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He since suffered an unrelated calf issue and the outcome of all this inactivity was his absence from the Ireland teamsheet when it was unveiled at their Portugal training base before flying into Cardiff later on Thursday.

It was a disappointment. Furlong had publicised his expectation that he would be fit when he did some media the day before the recent January 21 Leinster win in Dublin over Racing in the Heineken Champions Cup, but things with his calf didn’t progress sufficiently for him to be included in the match day 23 versus Wales.


What it heralds is a massive benchmark in the career of Finlay Bealham. The 31-year-old is no rookie in the sense that he has 27 Test caps to his name, but just four of those appearances have been as a starter and the last time he wore the No3 jersey was in the July 2021 win over Japan when Furlong was in South Africa with the Lions.


Bealham’s previous start before the Japanese – versus Georgia in November 2020 – could have spelled the end of his Test career as the Ireland scrum was massively troubled and the team hugely criticised by an unimpressed Farrell, but he has put in some impressive cameos off the bench in recent times. Namely in the tour series win over New Zealand last July and in the November win over South Africa.

That is all very well and good when it comes to subbing but now comes his litmus test – can he be a reliable starter now that Furlong is laid up? Much like the backup behind Johnny Sexton at out-half, there are issues with the depth of what exists at tighthead in Ireland and this is borne out by Farrell naming the four-cap Tom O’Toole on the replacements bench. Warren Gatland will be delighted, hoping the scrum is now an area where Wales can positively go after Ireland on Saturday.

O’Mahony 24 months on from seeing red
The no Furlong situation will ensure Ireland will be on their toes in Cardiff but that was surely always going to be the case given the memory of what they miserably endured two years ago when they last visited. Ireland certainly weren’t the potent outfit they have since become under Farrell’s stewardship, but they still arrived at the Principality 24 months ago as the favourites to take an opening round victory and launch a tilt at the title.

How wrong that assumption was. With Peter O’Mahony red-carded early on, Wales instead engineered an ambush victory and they – not Ireland – went on to win the title, an achievement that came within a whisker of being a Grand Slam triumph only for the concession of a late try in France.


O’Mahony is named at blindside in this Saturday’s Ireland team and it will be incumbent on him to be on his best behaviour and ensure he is seen in his best light. After his 2021 red card, the feeling was that he could easily have slipped down the pecking order with so many younger back-rowers flourishing in the Irish system.

However, at the age of 33, O’Mahony has shown to Farrell in recent times that he is determined not to relinquish his spot and he is now quite a positive point of difference to what the likes of Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris bring to the back row party.

The balance this trio provides has been excellent for Ireland. Now all that is needed is for the inspiring O’Mahony to concentrate on just being effective for his team and not get sidetracked by the verbals and the shape-throwing that often exist in matches versus the Welsh.

McCloskey’s sudden indispensability
Saturday will be a welcome back for James Lowe following his absence for the entire Autumn Nations Series through a calf injury. The 30-year-old with the big left boot has been an immense presence for Farrell’s Ireland when available and while the rookie Jimmy O’Brien was undoubtedly encouraging with how he went in November, the jersey was always set to revert to Lowe if he turned up fit and ready to train in Portugal, which he was. His booming clearances should keep Liam Williams, called up by Wales on Thursday at full-back for the injured Leigh Halfpenny, busy.

While the Irish recall of Lowe was no surprise, the continuing occupancy by Stuart McCloskey of the No12 shirt is intriguing. True, Robbie Henshaw is still sidelined with injury, but McCloskey seemed destined not that long ago to be a journeyman Test name, someone that rarely if ever played.

That was the way he was treated by Joe Schmidt since a 2016 debut and despite his obvious ability to offload in the tackle and to consistently break the gainline, Farrell seemed to be of a similar opinion as Schmidt in not much considering the Ulster midfielder as a genuine international-level pick.

That impression has now radically changed with the 30-year-old McCloskey having started all three of the recent November matches and he has kept the No12 shirt for the trip to the Principality, demonstrating that Ireland does have an option outside of the Garry Ringrose-Henshaw-Bundee Aki triumvirate that had dominated the selection since late 2017. Aki, who bench in the third November match versus Australia after a suspension has expired, is the bench backup at the Principality, with McCloskey chosen to partner Garry Ringrose.


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