When Andy Farrell revealed his hand for the Autumn Nations Cup last week, there was some surprise he didn’t opt to select a more experimental squad. The Ireland head coach named just three uncapped players in his 34-man group, although many more of those included have yet to fully establish themselves at Test level.
Some, such as Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey or Connacht man Dave Heffernan, have been around the block for a while but struggled to make Ireland squads during Joe Schmidt’s trophy-laden tenure.
Others like James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park have only recently become eligible for selection. There is a small batch of fresh young talent selected, with Hugo Keenan and Will Connors both making debuts during the recent Six Nations games and Munster’s Shane Daly called up on the back of an impressive season with Munster.
Then you have the future. Many would have liked to see Munster scrum-half Craig Casey and Leinster out-half Harry Byrne get a chance, but instead they have been left to continue their progress on the Guinness Pro14 stage. Injury has also limited Farrell’s options. Max Deegan debuted earlier this season but is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines, while Ryan Baird’s first cap has been delayed as he rehabs an adductor problem.
Without totally ripping up the script, Farrell’s Ireland squad for the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup games contains plenty of intrigue.
Here, we take a closer look at the 11 players within the 34-man squad who have less than five international caps to their name.
Billy Burns (Ulster) – Age 26, uncapped
The out-half has fitted in well at Ulster since arriving from Gloucester in 2018, and should win an Ireland debut in the coming weeks. Will face a major challenge to add to that going forward. Just look at Ross Byrne, a consistent performer for Leinster with only eight Ireland caps to his name. The expectation is that Johnny Sexton’s long-term replacement isn’t in this squad. Joey Carbery remains out of sight with injury while Byrne’s highly-rated younger brother, Harry, is spending his weekends steering Leinster to routine Pro14 wins. With that in mind Burns will need to make a real impression in this window. Has a strong kicking game and has shown leadership at Ulster, sometimes captaining the province in Iain Henderson’s absence.
Shane Daly (Munster) – Age 23, uncapped
A standout player earmarked during his time with the Ireland u20s and has settled in well at senior level. Can cover a number of positions across the backline, starting six times on the wing and seven at fullback for Munster last season, his performances earning him the province’s Young Player of the Year award. Strong on the ball and not shy to throw himself into a tackle, that versatility could make him an attractive bench option for Farrell. Anything more than that may be wishing thinking at this early stage of his career.
James Lowe (Leinster) – Age 28, uncapped
Could go straight into the starting team. Wasn’t in great form for Leinster after the restart but he’s been a superb signing for Leo Cullen’s side. While there remains some concern about his defensive work, the wing has struck for 33 tries in his 49 Leinster appearances since arriving from the Chiefs in 2017. That’s the sort of firepower Farrell simply can’t ignore. Lowe is a noticeably vocal presence in the Leinster backline, and that leadership is something Farrell could value given the amount of young faces breaking into his team. Has the potential to be a real game-changer in a team that has often lacked a bit of spark.
Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster) – Age 28, 2 caps
Made the cut ahead of Ulster’s John Cooney and Leinster team-mate Luke McGrath, who often starts ahead of Gibson-Park in Leinster’s big European games. A quietly effective player who does the basics well. Stuart Lancaster recently commented on how Gibson-Park has worked “really hard on speed of ball,” evident on debut v Italy. Not likely to oust Conor Murray any time soon, but certainly in with a shout of establishing himself as back-up to the Munster man.
Hugo Keenan (Leinster) – Age 24, 2 caps
Stole the headlines on debut with two tries against Italy. Offered a lively presence in Paris a week later although Ireland struggled to bring their wingers into the game. Will only get better, and could enter the conversation at fullback as James Lowe puts his name in the hat for a spot on the wing. Last season, eight of Keenan’s 12 starts for Leinster came at 15. Faces huge competition to nail down a spot in Farrell’s team but so far he has certainly looked up for the challenge.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) October 25, 2020
Ed Byrne (Leinster) – Age 27, 2 caps
Two ACL injuries could have ended his career, but instead the loosehead has fought back to earn an Ireland debut almost six years after making his first appearance for Leinster. He’s there on merit, but struggled off the bench against a powerful French scrum in Paris. He’ll look to his more convincing first-half cameo, while Cian Healy was sent for a HIA, for encouragement. It’s been a long road to get here, now Byrne needs to convince Farrell he belongs at this level.
Will Connors (Leinster) – Age 24, 2 caps
Easily identifiable in his blue scrum-cap, Connors still manages to make himself a nuisance for opposition while also turning the chop-tackle into something of a trademark move. Nobody made more tackles than Connors’ 195 in last season’s Pro14 and he was Ireland’s top tackler v Italy (19), although Paris provided a more realistic taste of the step-up required at Test level as he found his usual high workrate translated into very little reward. If that wasn’t enough to keep Connors grounded, Dan Leavy’s recent return to action will certainly keep him on his toes.
Stuart McCloskey (Ulster) – Age 28, 3 caps
Debuted v England in 2016 but has only managed two further caps against Fiji and USA, the last of which came two years ago. A regular presence around Ireland camps but just couldn’t make the breakthrough under Joe Schmidt. There’s no great shame in that given he’s fighting it out with Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw for a place in Ireland’s midfield. Has struggled for consistency at times but when on form McCloskey is a devastating presence, strong in defence and well capable of showing some nice hands in attack, as demonstrated in a number of productive outings for Ulster last season. Will justifiably feel he belongs in this squad, but needs to be on top of his game if he’s to stay in the mix given the company he’s in.
Dave Heffernan (Connacht) – Age 29, 3 caps
Having waited over three years to add to his solitary Ireland cap, the Connacht hooker will be desperately keen to prove himself during this window. A powerful and dynamic ball-carrier who chipped in with a try against Italy, but he won’t have enjoyed Paris, with Ireland’s set-piece really struggling as Farrell emptied his bench. A fit Ronan Kelleher will likely limit his opportunities over the next few weeks.
Ronan Kelleher (Leinster) – Age 22, 3 caps
Would surely have more than his three caps if it wasn’t for injury and will know there is a place in the team up for grabs with Farrell yet to settle on a replacement for Rory Best. Established himself as Leinster’s first choice hooker last season and was rewarded with three appearances off the bench in the Six Nations before lockdown struck. Has had the odd bad day at the lineout but has also shown he has the qualities to establish himself at this level. Like so many in the Leinster pack, Kelleher is comfortable with ball in hand and happy to contribute in attack. His return of nine tries in just 16 Leinster appearances would make most wingers cast a jealous eye. Nail down the basics and Kelleher could own the shirt for years.
Caelan Doris (Leinster) – Age 22, 4 caps
Concussion ended his Test debut after just four minutes earlier this year but Doris has barely looked back since. A growing influence at Leinster featuring 17 times last season, including some big Champions Cup games. Farrell is clearly keen on Leinster’s Young Player of the Year, with Peter O’Mahony left looking on from the bench against Italy and France. Brings huge energy and shows confidence in taking on defenders. Like Connors, will have learned far more from defeat in France – where he was yellow-carded – than the cake-stroll against the Azzurri. Clearly a special talent but with no shortage of competition in this backline, consistency will be key.
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