With the Six Nations postponed, Andy Farrell’s regeneration project with Ireland will have to wait.
The team that became such a force under Joe Schmidt was clearly in need of freshening up after such a disappointing 2019 season, and as Farrell begins to move his squad forward, it is interesting to wonder just how much transition we will see by the time France 2023 arrives.
With so many leaders closer to the end of their careers than the start, Farrell is presented with the tricky task of introducing the right amount of fresh faces without causing too much disruption to a squad that was a genuine force in the not too distant past.
There are a number of players who are on the wrong side of 30, and Johnny Sexton (34), Conor Murray (30), Peter O’Mahony (30), Keith Earls (32) and Cian Healy (32) could all be out of the picture come the next World Cup. That leaves Farrell with some big holes to fill, but Ireland have shown a handy knack of producing young talent in recent years.
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This is the Ireland team RugbyPass thinks we could see at France 2023. Working on the assumption that the selected players all continue on their current trajectory, it is a team that offers an exciting mix of youth and experience, and in general has a more dynamic look to it than the group which failed to reach their target at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
With Andy Farrell wasting no time in bringing the curtain down on Rob Kearney’s long reign at fullback, the jersey is now Larmour’s to lose. The Leinster flyer’s talent and ability to produce the unexpected is well known at this stage, with the only question left the one surrounding his best position. With a number of standout options available on the wing, Larmour looks set to continue his development further back the pitch. Only a shocking loss of form would see him drop out of this team.
There is a sense Conway is finally fulfilling the potential he has long shown glimpses of. With Keith Earls being eased out of the starting XV by Farrell, his Munster teammate has stepped up to the plate in impressive fashion. Having become increasingly influential at Munster in recent seasons, Conway has worked on the areas on his game that need improvement, and looks right at home on the international stage now. At 28, he can grow into the type of experienced winger that made Earls such an important part of Joe Schmidt’s backline.
Mr Consistent. Ringrose’s development has only been curtailed by injury. In arguably the most competitive area of this Ireland team – think Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell, Will Addison, etc – Ringrose has continuously shone when selected in midfield, and often provides some spark with ball in hand. Earlier concerns about his defensive ability remain, but he has made significant improvements in that area, and will be a fixture of this Ireland team for years to come.
Like Ringrose, Henshaw would certainly have more caps to his name if it wasn’t for a troublesome injury record. Both players will continue to face stiff competition from Aki, whose security on the ball was highly valued by Schmidt, but their familiarity with each other as Leinster teammates makes this the partnership of choice going forward. Defensive effort is usually faultless, and his qualities compliment those of Ringrose well.
An area of the pitch which is set to become fascinatingly competitive over the next few years. While Ulster wing Stockdale may not be hitting the incredible heights of 2018, at just 23 years old, naturally the expectation is that he will hit that form again. He has responded to the disappointment of Japan with some big moments for Ulster, but will need to be at his best to keep his jersey going forward. Leinster’s James Lowe becomes eligible to play for Ireland later this year, and is sure to push for a place in the squad straight-away. On top form, it’s a tight call between Stockdale and Lowe, but the former edges the battle given he has already proven himself on the Test stage. Lowe plays all his rugby in the 11 shirt at Leinster, but such is his talent, Conway may find himself under pressure on the opposite wing should Farrell look to accommodate both Stockdale and Lowe. Watch this space.
Perhaps the biggest question mark in this team given just how much Carbery has struggled with injury over the past 12 months. The Munster out-half is a gem of a player, but needs to stay fit and learn his position if he is to nail down a place as Ireland’s starting 10. Ireland won’t be able to rely on Johnny Sexton forever – he’ll be 38 come the next World Cup – so the hope is Carbery can get fit and kick on with his development. He will have plenty of competition, with Byrne brothers Ross (24) and Harry (20) both set to compete for the Leinster No 10 shirt over the next few seasons. Arguments that Carbery would be better served at fullback add to the intrigue, but his desire remains becoming Ireland’s 10.
It is not impossible to imagine a scenario where Conor Murray hits a steady run of form and remains Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half for another few years. Yet Murray will be 34 come France, so Farrell will be keen to assess his options. Currently Ulster’s Cooney is his main threat and appears best placed to make the position his, but at 29, time isn’t exactly his friend either. Leinster’s Luke McGrath (27) appears more suited to the role of reliable back-up rather than go-to-guy, as does Kieran Marmion. Then you have Craig Casey, one of the most exciting prospects on Munster’s books and a player who looks destined for a bright future. He will be 24 by the time France 2023 rolls around, and while it is too early to predict how quickly he will rise through the ranks, if he continues on this upward curve, there is every chance he will have a major say in the scrum-half conversation.
This could become something of a problem position for Farrell. At the moment, his main options at loosehead are Cian Healy (32), Dave Kilcoyne (31), and McGrath (30). While it is not impossible that one of those three will be the starting loosehead in France, their age profile would suggest this is an area in need of some fresh blood coming through. Compared to tighthead, there does not seem to be the same breadth of talent available. Moving Andrew Porter back across to his former position could become a very live possibility unless Farrell unearths some exciting young prospects, but currently there are no stand-out candidates. McGrath will turn 34 in the final weeks of the next World Cup, and could remain as the old head in the pack. Yet with no clear front-runner there is perhaps no position as open as loosehead.
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It is a matter of when, not if, Kelleher is confirmed as Ireland’s first-choice hooker. After a superb start to the season with Leinster, injury kept him out of the reckoning for the opening stages of the Six Nations. When fit and firing, he is the obvious choice for the jersey. A dynamic hooker, Kelleher has shown a natural ability to get around the pitch and shares Leinster teammate Sean Cronin’s eye for the try-line. Promises to be a mainstay in Farrell’s team for years to come.
Like so many of this Ireland squad, Furlong has been far from his dominant best over the last 12 months, but he is still a world class talent when on song. Has found himself under increasing pressure from the impressive Porter, but it would take a rapid decline to see Furlong lose his place in the team. Not long ago he was considered the best tighthead in world rugby, and at 27, his best years could still be ahead of him.
The second-row has seen plenty of chopping and changing over the past year, with Devin Toner the surprise omission from Schmidt’s World Cup squad, only to return under Farrell for the Six Nations. Tadhg Beirne appears to be a victim of his own versatility when it comes to nailing down a position, and while Jean Kleyn made the plane to Japan, he failed to dislodge Iain Henderson, and the Ulster captain is in the driving seat to lock down a formidable partnership with James Ryan over the coming years. Henderson will be 31 in France, so if he stays fit, there is no reason to suggest he will be out the equation. His biggest threat may come from the uncapped Ryan Baird. It is early days yet, but the early glimpses we’ve seen of Baird suggest he has everything needed to become a star. His stunning hat-trick against Glasgow in January’s Pro14 clash showcased just how exciting a prospect the 20-year-old is. Another position to watch with interest.
One of Ireland’s most consistent competitors, and Farrell’s likely captain at France 2023. Ryan has rarely put a foot wrong since bursting onto the scene and is now one of the first names on the team-sheet. An Ireland legend in the making, and he’s still only 23. Injury permitting, it is almost unthinkable to imagine he won’t be a key man for Ireland at the next World Cup.
Often written off, but yet to budge from his perch, Stander remains hugely important to this Ireland team. If Farrell is to try put a more dynamic, youthful look on his team, then Stander’s experience and reliability could become more important than ever, even if it is likely the wealth of talent at Number 8 sees him shift across the backrow. At 29, Stander will hope to still be highly competitive come the next World Cup, and the fact he has proven himself to be so resilient in a particularly attritional area of the pitch suggests he could be here to stay for a while yet. It would take a brave man to bet against him.
We are more or less playing a guessing game with all of this team, but this position is especially difficult to predict. Ireland’s flankers have not had a good time of it when it comes to injury over the past two years. Between Sean O’Brien, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy, injuries have come at desperately unfortunate times. Leavy’s injury was devastating, and the hope is he will still be the same bulldozing force when he does eventually return. If he can produce that level of performance again, the shirt is his. Fellow Leinster star Scott Penny will also have designs on earning the jersey, and don’t write off long-serving Rhys Ruddock either, even if the 29-year-old doesn’t appear to be in Andy Farrell’s current plans.
A superstar in the making. The hype surrounding Doris has been bubbling away for some time now, and so far, he is yet to do anything to suggest that hype is not entirely justified. Injury to Jack Conan saw his opportunities at Leinster increase, and he has made the step up with aplomb. Leinster buddy Max Deegan will hope to present Farrell with a nice headache in this position, but at the moment, Doris looks best placed to kick-on and nail down the jersey. The battle with Deegan could become something to savour.
Watch: Big Jim Hamilton’s hilarious response to riddle
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