There was plenty to digest after Andy Farrell announced his 36-man squad for the opening rounds of the 2021 Six Nations on Monday. Farrell has called in two uncapped players for his second Six Nations campaign – Munster scrum-half Craig Casey and Ulster prop Tom O’Toole – but as is so often the case, it is those that have missed out who are stealing the headlines.
The absence of Jacob Stockdale through injury is a major blow, while others who have dipped in and out of squads, such as Luke McGrath and John Cooney, have once again found their names listed in the wrong column in Farrell’s ledger. At the other end of the scale you have a player like Rhys Ruddock, who has played his way back into the squad more than a year on from his most recent appearance in green.
The inclusion of just two uncapped players may suggest that Farrell’s squad is lacking fresh blood, but the Ireland head coach has steadily been introducing new faces throughout his first year in charge. With 12 players in this squad having less than 10 caps to their name, it is a team that is slowly trying to move in a new direction.
Here, we look at the winners and losers from the 36-man squad named by Farrell ahead of Ireland’s opening game against Wales in Cardiff.
Casey has been a real bright spark for Munster in his 11 appearances (7 starts) this season, despite an uncharacteristically tame showing against Leinster last weekend. A lively and vocal presence who plays with a nice sense of urgency, Casey offers something different to the more experienced players who missed out, and having previously been called in to train with the squad the 21-year-old will relish the chance to make the step up at such an early stage in his career. Some supporters will scratch their heads at the omissions of Luke McGrath or John Cooney, but Farrell will argue that Casey is the future.
?The Backs. @JohnnySexton is closing in on his 100th cap while @CraigCasey9 is aiming for his first. We take a look at the 17 players named in the backs for Ireland's #GuinnessSixNations campaign.#ShoulderToShoulder https://t.co/bvbXdJ5kbN
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 25, 2021
The Leinster prop hasn’t played since Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to England last February, so it will be a big ask for Furlong to hit the ground running after almost a year out of action with back and calf problems. Furlong’s status as Ireland’s starting tighthead was set in stone this time last year, but Andrew Porter’s continued progress – and remarkable ability to last 70+ minutes – will keep him focused. There is now genuine competition for the jersey.
Missed the autumn internationals with an ankle problem but the tighthead returns to the squad despite making only one start for Ulster this season. O’Toole was part of the squad for last year’s Six Nations but didn’t manage to work his way into the team before the tournament was put an ice due to the coronavirus pandemic. An exciting prospect and a solid defender – he hasn’t missed any of his last 160 tackles – but will be firmly third in line behind Porter and the fit again Furlong.
On paper, including Ruddock is a no-brainer considering his outstanding consistency for Leinster this year. In a squad bursting with talent, Ruddock was Leinster’s Player of the Month three months running across October to December. That is no mean feat. He’ll feel he has to point to prove at Test level, with his last cap coming at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Has had a difficult time since starting for Ireland against Japan at the 2019 World Cup, a game where he lit it up for the opening 20 minutes before Ireland unravelled in the face of a superb Japan side. Probably took too much of the flak for that defeat and his club form appeared to suffer as a result. His superb displays as Connacht lost to Racing and then beat Leinster over the Christmas period were a reminder of just how good Carty can be, although consistency has been a problem for the 28-year-old. Still, based on current form he’ll feel there isn’t much more he could have done.
BREAKING: Two high-profile withdrawals from England's Six Nations squad. https://t.co/9Pywu3uadD
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 25, 2021
Last spring, Cooney was pushing Conor Murray hard for the No 9 shirt but he misses out again having failed to make the cut for the autumn internationals. So often Ulster’s bright spark, Cooney – who tops the Pro14 charts for try assists, clean breaks and points scored this season – hasn’t done enough to convince Farrell he warrants inclusion. Instead, Jamison Gibson-Park and the uncapped Craig Casey get the vote of confidence to support first-choice scrum-half Murray. While he hasn’t been at his scintillating best this season, he has been left with the familiar feeling that he’s been hard done by. At 30 years of age, he could be forgiven for thinking his future may lie elsewhere.
Baird has been included in squads previously but is yet to win his first cap, with injury striking at the wrong time. An athletic, dynamic player, Baird looked well in the mix in the lead-up to Christmas with some stand-out performances for Leinster. Perhaps his recent trial at blindside, a position he previously played at underage level, worked against him in Farrell’s eyes.
The collision that has split rugby fans this weekend. https://t.co/CBP36nbRta
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 24, 2021
Returned from a lengthy injury lay-off earlier this season and made his desire for a swift return to the international fold clear. Has looked sharp for Leinster but needs time to get back to his destructive best. This tournament has probably just come too soon for him, particularly given the cancellation of Leinster’s two post-Christmas Champions Cup ties. Munster’s Gavin Coombes will also be disappointed to not get the call, but the backrow is an area where Ireland are stacked with talent and it’s hard to argue against any of the six players named.
Like Cooney, McGrath has been a solid performer at provincial level but just doesn’t seem to fit Farrell’s plans. McGrath also missed out in the autumn as Farrell opted for Gibson-Park, even though he tends to start ahead of the former Hurricanes man at Leinster. They are different types of players, so with Murray more or less guaranteed to start, Farrell might just see Gibson-Park as a more effective bench option. In that regard, the sight of Gibson-Park slotting in on the wing for the latter stages of Leinster’s defeat of Munster can’t have done him any harm as Farrell watched on from the stands. Connacht’s Kieran Marmion will also be disappointed to lose out.
Hasn’t played for Ulster since January 2 and misses out due to a knee injury. Had a difficult autumn having been shifted from the wing to fullback, enduring a torrid time against France in Paris. Yet few players in this squad boast such an attacking threat, with Stcokdale scoring 18 tries in 33 caps. The IRFU have not made it clear if he will come back into contention for the latter stages of the Six Nations, so watch this space.
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