Andy Farrell has backed James Lowe to light up the Six Nations after the Leinster winger was a ‘surprise’ pick in the Ireland side that will face Wales in the opening round of the Guinness Six Nations in Cardiff on Sunday.

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New Zealander Lowe, who qualified for Ireland in November under the three-year residency rule, hasn’t played a match of any kind since picking up a groin injury in Autumn Nations Cup defeat to England at Twickenham eleven weeks ago.

With Hugo Keenan switching to full-back to take over from the absent Jacob Stockdale, it had been felt that Jordan Larmour was at the top of the queue to get a look-in on the wing as he had played some recent matches for Leinster. Andrew Conway was also in the mix for selection.

However, Ireland boss Farrell has instead opted to go with Lowe even though he will have been without a game for 78 days when he takes the field at the Principality Stadium. Foremost in the Farrell’s thinking would have been how Lowe fared in his Test debut versus Wales in November, the winger scoring a try and making 82 metres from his eleven carries.

Asked was the inclusion of Lowe a surprise given his inactivity in recent months, Farrell said: “Not really, not in our eyes. He’s a great player that is right for this game. When you’re selected a team you look first and foremost what the right balance is for the team and you can agree it is a strong side, a strong 23, one that is raring to go to start a new competition.

“He [Lowe] has been in great form (in training). He has been seamless in getting back into action, like most of the other lads. In his position, Jordan hasn’t played many games, hasn’t had much game time. Andrew Conway is in the same boat. They have all come in fit and raring to go and are up to speed to where we want them to be.

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“We asked the boys to make sure at the end of the autumn that come the Six Nations they were fit and healthy and raring to go to perform at the level of what is needed to be at their best for the Six Nations. We like what we have seen from all of the squad really over the last ten days.”

With Caelan Doris unavailable due to concussion, Josh van der Flier comes back into the side to reprise the back row combination of him at openside with Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. This was the 2019 World Cup back row favoured by Joe Schmidt but it had been shelved since Ireland ran into a brick wall when beaten by England last February.

“Josh was on the bench for us a couple of times in the autumn,” said Farrell. “He made some significant impacts in the game. He has a fantastic running game, really punches onto the ball well, but his all-round game is pretty strong so we feel that this combination is the one to go with this weekend.”

Asked if Doris might come back into the selection reckoning for the round two game at home to France, Farrell said: “We’ll wait and see. he only thing that matters at his moment of time is Caelan gets the advice that he needs and we will see how the coming weeks go.”

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Aside from Lowe for Stockdale and van der Flier for Doris, Ireland’s other changes to the team that faced Scotland in their last outing were Garry Ringrose for Bundee Aki and Tadhg Beirne for Iain Henderson.

The exclusion of Aki is huge as he had been a near-ever present at No12 since qualifying under residency in 2017. His suspension for the 2019 World Cup quarter-final was the last time the Leinster partnership of Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw started at Test level.

“They’re both class players,” added Farrell, focusing on Ringrose and Henshaw. “It’s a partnership you would hope would grab hold of a competition like this. They are a partnership that plays together and trains together most days of the week.”

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