Andy Farrell has explained his rationale behind breaking up the regularly selected Ireland back row of Peter O’Mahony (67 caps), Josh van der Flier (26) and CJ Stander (41). This trio consisting of two Munster players and the Leinster openside started four of the five Ireland matches at last year’s World Cup, the tournament that marked the end of the Joe Schmidt era. 

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The Kiwi’s departure was following by the already-arranged promotion of Englishman Farrell to the top job in Ireland and while he did select Caelan Doris for a debut at No8 in the opening match of the Six Nations versus Scotland with O’Mahony benched and Stander moving to No6, Doris was concussed after just four minutes.

That resulted in O’Mahony, the 2017 Lions first Test skipper in New Zealand, coming on to star as a replacement at blindside with Stander reverting to No8, and it resulted in Farrell picking O’Mahony, van der Flier and Stander as his back row starters in the subsequent February matches against Wales and England. 

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James Ryan and Johnny Sexton look ahead to Ireland vs Italy

That last match was where the opening month of the Farrell era got stuck at the ruck, though, Ireland comprehensively beat up by the English even if the twelve-point of defeat didn’t look all that awful on the scoreboard. 

With the Six Nations now ready to resume following its pandemic-enforced hibernation, Farrell has a taken a scalpel to his back row, benching O’Mahony and leaving van der Flier out altogether in the hope that Doris, who has just two caps, and the uncapped Will Connors can ignite Ireland in this all-important back row sector.  

O’Mahony missed last week’s Ireland camp due to self-isolation while van der Flier had a premonition last month of the back row selection situation as he went from being PRO14 final man of the match with Leinster to sitting on the province’s bench for the following week’s European game with Saracens.  

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“We think that the three that I have picked are playing really well,” said Farrell after he unveiled an XV showing six changes in total from Twickenham.  

“We think Josh is a great player and he always has been for us. We think that Will will add a little bit of mobility to our back row. Defence is a big part of the game and with CJ Stander, with what we have seen over the past few weeks with his presence over the ball, Will gives opportunities like that as well. 

“Not that Josh can’t do that, he definitely can. Josh is doing nothing wrong. It’s just a case of ‘let’s give Will his chance and see how he goes’.”

Uncapped Hugo Keenan is set for his Ireland debut on the wing while two other Leinster newcomers make the bench, Ed Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park, for a match where Farrell wants Ireland to demonstrate they have the ability to lift the Six Nations trophy the following week in Paris. Two bonus point wins will see them crowned champions. 

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“I hope that you see an energy in defence that is pretty ruthless. I hope you see a dynamism in our contact skills that gets the ball back. I hope you see a set-piece that is aggressive and going after them. On the back of that we hope to get some opportunities to play and be clinical. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

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