Corry’s Corner predicts the starting XV for the 2020 Six Nations opener with one huge call thrown in.
With his first Six Nations campaign as Ireland head coach just eight weeks away, Andy Farrell has a lot to think about ahead of Scotland’s visit to Dublin.
With Rory Best’s retirement now officially official, a new captain must be selected while his position in the front-row is up for grabs.
Despite such a dismal World Cup campaign in Japan, one that largely summed up 2019 for Irish rugby, it’s hard to see wholesale changes in the Ireland starting XV.
Expect Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and probably Iain Henderson to make up four of the tight-five while it’s difficult to see Peter O’Mahony drop out of the team if he’s named captain, a strong likelihood. In such event, CJ Stander will remain at number eight in Jack Conan’s absence with Josh van der Flier at openside.
There has been an array strong performances so far domestically with Marty Moore, Jeremy Loughman, Will Connors, Max Deegan and many, many others putting their hands up for selection. However, apart from Rónan Kelleher, most of them won’t so much as make the squad, nevermind, start on February 1.
Assessing Andy Farrell’s backline is where it gets really interesting. While the talent is still very much there, the form is questionable.
At one point, everything he touched turned to gold, however, Jacob Stockdale has looked a shadow of the man who burst onto our screens in late 2017 before playing a key role in Irish rugby’s finest year. It’s nothing to worry about, merely just a dip in form. It was always going to happen and he’ll be back the better for it.
Meanwhile, Andrew Conway has continued in the rich vein of form that should have seen him get more minutes throughout the World Cup. The Munster flyer has scored some vital tries this season and, yet again, stood up when it mattered making some big plays. At this juncture, it could be a straight swap with Conway and Stockdale with Keith Earls operating the opposite wing having returned to form with Munster.
Jordan Larmour might finally get a sustained run in the team also given his World Cup exploits and ability to turn the game on a sixpence. Rob Kearney hasn’t featured much for Leinster this season and looked very rusty in his comeback against Connacht. 2020 might just be the year that Larmour gets his chance to shine.
Garry Ringrose has been in stellar form so far this season while Robbie Henshaw hasn’t played much rugby at all throughout 2019. His absence once again paves the way for Bundee Aki who, fresh off signing a new three-year deal, looks set to continue jousting with the Leinster centres for the 12 & 13 slots. Expect Ringrose and Aki to take the field in eight weeks’ time.
With Carbery out injured and Conor Fitzgerald putting Jack Carty under significant pressure, Johnny Sexton is sure to continue in his role at out-half. In truth, this just makes the selection all the easier as Sexton is still the out on his own as our number one.
The one burning question, however, is what half-back should partner Sexton.
We’ve become accustomed to seeing Conor Murray dominate the world’s best in this area of the pitch alongside the 2018 World Player of the Year. For two to three seasons it was the best half-back partnership in the world.
That, it no longer is.
Since his neck injury just over a year ago, Murray hasn’t looked anywhere near as influential and there’s a strong argument to say that Munster were better against Racing in last week’s Champions Cup thriller when Alby Mathewson replaced him. Although, the fact it was Mathewson’s last game cannot be understated.
By no means does this spell the end, but when looking at the competition and performances throughout the four provinces it’s hard to carry an argument for Murray to start come the Six Nations.
Luke McGrath continues to rack up plenty of minutes in an all-conquering Leinster machine while also drilling alongside Sexton on a daily basis. Out west, Caolin Blade is quickly making the nation sit-up and take notice of his obvious potential. Blade has been scintillating in the Champions Cup and looks to have nailed down the starting spot ahead of Kieran Marmion, something that speaks volumes considering the contribution Marmion has made at international level.
Despite the powerful performances of some of the other scrum-halves vying for game time, none has made the impact quite like John Cooney who has become the most influential individual across the four provinces. His presence is the Ulster side is paramount to them winning and when he’s been on the field, the northern province, so far, have looked a match for anyone this season.
John Cooney that is magic! 😍
A massive try last week vs Bath, and he's only gone and done it again vs Clermont!
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) November 22, 2019
Cooney has bounced back impressively having been dropped from the World Cup squad before a warm-up game took place. The opening two rounds of the Champions Cup provided the platform for players to showcase themselves to international coaches and none put their hands up more so than Cooney who kicked flawlessly, controlled the tempo of both games and scored two brilliant tries.
Over the two rounds, nobody from an Irish perspective shone brighter than Cooney as Ulster picked up back-to-back wins. Since he walked in the door at Belfast he has been magnificent but he’s gone up a level that many thought he didn’t have this season.
His try against Clermont perfectly illustrated a man in form brimming with confidence, something that Andy Farrell should really be considering when making key selections ahead of his first game in charge.
As a reward for what has been an incredible season thus far, John Cooney needs to start for Ireland on the opening day of the 2020 Six Nations. Simple as that.
Corry’s Corner: Ireland XV to face Scotland
1) Cian Healy
2) Ronan Kelleher
3) Tadhg Furlong
4) Iain Henderson
5) James Ryan
6) Peter O’Mahony (c)
7) Josh van der Flier
8) CJ Stander
9) John Cooney
10) Johnny Sexton
11) Keith Earls
12) Bundee Aki
13) Garry Ringrose
14) Andrew Conway
15) Jordan Larmour