Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has had three weeks of PRO14 action to digest and dissect since rugby returned in the nation. And while Farrell won’t make any drastic decisions based on a handful of matches, the first few outings for the provinces in almost six months will have given him plenty to think about as Ireland’s autumn Test schedule inches closer.
To nobody’s surprise Leinster remain the team to beat in the competition and Leo Cullen’s side will once again provide the spine of the Ireland teams that will take to the field in October and November.
A mixed season for Connacht fizzled out as soon as it resumed, while Ulster can end their campaign on a high if they upset the odds against Leinster in this weekend’s all-Irish PRO14 final.
And as pleasing as Leinster’s swift return to form will have been for Farrell, Munster’s tame PRO14 exit will be of real concern, their only score in a 13-3 semi-final loss to Leinster coming via the boot of JJ Hanrahan with five minutes played. That rudderless display could mean veterans such as Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander will find their places in the Ireland team come under real threat, particularly if Leinster’s young stars carry their impressive form into the Champions Cup.
If Farrell was to sit down this week and pick an Ireland team on form, some big names would have to be omitted. At the same time, some of Ireland’s most tried and tested players came back from lockdown looking firing fit and hungry for action.
Here, we take a look at what at Ireland form XV might look like after a rugby restart packed full of talking points.
15 Jordan Larmour, Leinster
Larmour is the heir apparent to Rob Kearney, whose international career came to a screeching halt as soon as Farrell took charge. At 23, Larmour still has much to learn about fullback play, but his showing in the semi-final win over Munster was far more promising than his first game back, where he looked rusty and slightly unsure of himself. Those dancing feet and his ability with ball in hand is well known by this stage, but most pleasing is the fact that his aerial game is steadily improving. It is also worth noting that while Jacob’s Stockdale recent move to 15 has looked promising, he only really grew into Ulster’s win over Edinburgh last week when switched back to the wing after a quiet first-half. Watch this space.
14 Andrew Conway, Munster
Had little influence playing on the periphery of Munster’s semi-final defeat, but that was a by-product of an overall system failure as the province were bested in every department. Two weeks previously Munster got Conway on the ball early and often as they used their width, and the former Leinster man was a constant threat, dotting down twice and making some key contributions in general play. Conway, 29, used to flit between fullback and the wing but every one of his 11 starts this season came in the 14 jersey. He has improved defensively and attacks with real purpose, scoring four tries in the three games after the restart.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 22, 2020
13 Garry Ringrose, Leinster
Injury has often dictated the three into two conundrum presented by Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki in the Ireland midfield battle. You could argue that it’s actually one of the easiest decisions facing Farrell, as all three are proven performers on the biggest stage. However, we’re opting for the fleet-footed Ringrose to partner Connacht’s Aki. Ringrose shone in the round 14 win over Munster, with his try coming via a sumptuous Henshaw assist, and was arguably even better last week. Ringrose even took on captaincy duties for the latter stages of the comfortable 13-3 win over Munster, a sign of the 25-year-old’s increasing maturity. An honourable mention for Chris Farrell too, who delivered a commanding man of the match performance in the first game against Leinster before a quiet outing in the rematch.
12 Bundee Aki, Connacht
Did anybody in Ireland miss rugby more than Bundee Aki? The Connacht centre was a ball of energy following the restart, bringing his usual brute physicality in the win over Ulster before a rip-roaring appearance off the bench against Munster. His team were well beaten, but Aki never gave up the fight, leading the way for Connacht both in carries (10) and metres made (52), and even filling in at Number 8 momentarily. A superstar.
11 James Lowe, Leinster
It has to be, right? Lowe becomes eligible to play for Ireland later this year and as a key component of the Leinster machine he’s widely expected to make the step up to international level as soon as possible. While he hasn’t hit his own supreme heights with ball in hand in recent weeks he’s still been a solid, reliable presence in the Leinster team. Crucially for Farrell, Lowe’s defence effort and love of hard work can’t be faulted. Stockdale will be his main rival for the shirt but with the Ulster man pushed back to fullback for his province recently, Lowe is well placed to jump straight in at the deep end with Ireland. It could be the injection of energy they badly need.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) September 4, 2020
10 Johnny Sexton, Leinster
Sexton has made no secret of the fact he wants to follow the Tom Brady route and still be playing at the top level at 40. We’re not sure how realistic that is, but for now the 35-year-old is nailed on as Ireland’s first-choice out-half. The coronavirus lockdown doesn’t appear to have had any ill-effects either. In the two games against Munster a beefed-up Sexton was at his authoritative best, keen to get involved and running the game superbly. A handful of wonderfully timed passes provided the icing on the cake in the first meeting, before a more measured performance second time out. He remains Ireland’s main man.
9 John Cooney, Ulster
The Conor Murray debate will continue to rage. The Munster scrum-half has come under plenty of scrutiny over the last couple of years and consistency remains the problem. In the first defeat to Leinster the zip was back in Murray’s pass and his diligence was a key factor in keeping the game a contest right into the final five minutes. Yet when the teams met again in the semi-final his play looked predictable (14 box-kicks!) and slow. Cooney has grown into a game-changer for Ulster and offers a bit of spark, even if last week’s win over Edinburgh wasn’t a vintage outing as injury cut his evening short. He was flying it before the lockdown hit and after playing understudy to Murray in the Six Nations, Farrell must be tempted to bump him up again.
1 Cian Healy, Leinster
Scrummaging well but more subdued than usual in general play recently. Thing is, even if Healy looks slightly off-colour he still tends to deliver solid performances, including a try in his first game back against Munster. He’s Ireland’s premier loosehead and at 32, shows no sign of handing over his shirt anytime soon. Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne is his most live threat but is currently sidelined with an ankle problem.
2 Rob Herring, Ulster
Herring started all three of Ireland’s Six Nations fixtures before coronavirus hit and hasn’t done anything to warrant losing his place. He will, however, face stiff competition from Ronan Kelleher. At his best Kelleher is as dynamic a hooker as you could hope for – he’s on nine tries for the season – but has been subject to the odd shaky moment at the lineout. Ulster’s Herring offers more security, for now, and is no stranger to the try-line himself with two in his last two outings. Another close call for Farrell, with Connacht’s Dave Heffernan also coming off the back of an excellent season.
3 Andrew Porter, Leinster
Porter’s reliability is evident in the fact that Leinster haven’t missed Tadhg Furlong as he recovers from a back injury. The 24-year old tighthead has been rock solid since the restart, including a 100 per cent tackle rate of 12 from 12 in the two games against Munster. Furlong’s experience will probably win the day if he is fit come the Autumn Tests, but if he’s not available, Farrell won’t lose too much sleep.
4 Tadhg Beirne, Munster
Beirne has fallen victim of his own versatility with Ireland, providing a handy bench option in covering both the second and back rows. Yet his recent displays for Munster suggests he is ready for a lead role. Used at lock, Beirne has been a menace at the breakdown and a constant threat in the air. One of the few Munster players who emerged with any credit from the limp semi-final loss, although adding to his carrying game would do his international ambitions no harm.
5 Devin Toner, Leinster
The man who won’t go away. It’s a year now since Joe Schmidt left Toner out of his World Cup squad, but the Leinster lock has reacted admirably, putting his head down and deservedly returning to the international fold under Farrell. Ryan Baird may be the next big thing at Leinster, but Toner’s experience was to the fore in recent weeks, playing 177 minutes from a possible 240 in Leinster’s three PRO14 fixtures, and providing a crucial late interception in the first game back. Toner didn’t start that round 14 game against Munster but was reinstated for the semi-final. It is hardly coincidence that Leinster’s lineout success jumped from 72 per cent to 83 per cent while Munster’s fell from 100 per cent to 78 per cent. A safe, if not overly ambitions choice who would deserve a starting berth with Ireland, but of course, the return of James Ryan could change everything.
6 Caelan Doris, Leinster
This is where things get really interesting. We already know Farrell rates Doris highly, starting him against Scotland in the Six Nations only for a head injury to end his evening after just a couple of minutes. Having shown faith in him before, Farrell may well turn to the Leinster starlet again. At just 22 Doris is showing a maturity beyond his years on the pitch and is bossing players with much more experience. His decision making is excellent, and he is making a real impact on every game he plays. No player made more carries (14) or beat more defenders (3) against Munster last week, and only James Lowe made more metres (60) than Doris (52). A whirlwind of energy and ambition that stood in stark contrast to the predictability of some of the Munster veterans he was up against. That won’t go unnoticed.
7 Will Connors, Leinster
Another young gun making a real name for himself. Farrell may be wary of throwing too much youth into his team, but if he’s picking on form he can’t ignore Leinster’s emerging backrow stars and Connors was perhaps the standout performer in the semi-final win. He was the top tackler at the Aviva, missing one of his 14 tackles against Munster in a stoic defensive effort. Of course the 24-year-old has been doing it all year, leading the PRO14 tackle count with 191. He has started 11 of his 13 appearances and has probably edged out Josh van der Flier as Leinster’s first-choice openside. Expect to see him showcase those trademark chop tackles on the Test stage later this year.
8 Jack Conan, Leinster
Conan has tended to play second best to CJ Stander at Test level, and admittedly there is probably little to pick between the two at the moment. Stander’s influence waned against Leinster last week after an excellent display in their first meeting, while Conan has been consistent, if not outstanding, since returning from a long term injury absence. Stander offers more security on the ball than most, but Conan is able to mix things up more in attack. If Farrell wants to make his team a more open, attacking side, Conan is his man, and another couple of solid displays against Ulster and Saracens would seal the deal.
16 – Ronan Kelleher, Leinster
Made a blistering start to his senior career but has looked slightly less assured in recent games, leaving the door open for Herring to continue as starting hooker.
17 – Jack McGrath, Ulster
Farrell’s loosehead options look a little light. Dave Kilcoyne is injured and while Jeremy Loughman has had some promising displays, he endured a night to forget against Leinster on Friday. British and Irish Lion McGrath seems the most obvious bench option, and could be pushed by Ulster team-mate Eric O’Sullivan.
18 – Tom O’Toole, Ulster
Andrew Porter owned this jersey when Tadhg Furlong was fit so who fills his boots if Porter is required to step up? Munster pair Stephen Archer and John Ryan haven’t done enough recently to convince. Finlay Bealham is a reliable option having recently returned from injury but Farrell may opt for Ulster’s O’Toole, who was part of the Six Nations squad earlier this year.
19 – Ryan Baird, Leinster
We can’t pick James Ryan in a form team as he’s yet to return from injury, so by that measure the all-action Ryan Baird would be a great bench option behind the more experienced pairing of Beirne and Toner.
20 – CJ Stander, Munster
No opponent would want to see a fresh-looking Stander entering the action with 20 minutes to play. With Leinster’s young stars the current form players, Stander could offer quality cover at six and eight, and has done more to warrant his inclusion over fellow back-rower Peter O’Mahony.
21 – Conor Murray, Munster
Still a top-quality operator, and struggles against Leinster can’t be solely laid at his door. That said, he’s not been the Conor Murray of old recently and is no longer a shoe-in with John Cooney flourishing at Ulster.
22 – Ian Madigan, Ulster
Ice in his veins to slot two crucial kicks against Edinburgh. With Joey Carbery still injured, is it time for a return to the green jersey?
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) September 5, 2020
23- Jacob Stockdale, Ulster
Fullback experiment still needs time, but with James Lowe entering the picture Stockdale could cover both wing and fullback from the bench.
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