Let the permutations begin.
Now that the 2019/20 season has come to an end for the Irish provinces, we finally have a bank of games where we can review players’ performances.
The last couple of weeks saw both Leinster and Ulster play five matches where the eastern province claimed a third successive PRO14 title with their comfortable win over Dan McFarland’s side. Both teams then came out second best in their respective European clashes with Saracens and Toulouse.
Munster lined out on three occasions as they yet again faltered at the semi-final hurdle while Connacht played two rounds of fixtures as they failed to reach the playoffs.
Ireland’s final two fixtures of this year’s Six Nations take place at the end of October before the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup begins in November.
Andy Farrell, of course, will be keeping a close eye on his players when the new PRO14 season also begins at the start of October.
However, he will have a good idea of his starting XV when his side take to the field against Italy on the 24th of next month based on what he has seen over the last few weeks.
Here we chose a form Ireland XV ahead of those eagerly-anticipated international fixtures.
Form Ireland XV
1. Cian Healy
Cian Healy started every one of Ireland’s Six Nations fixtures earlier this year and that trend looks set to continue after the incumbent loosehead produced a string of solid performances for Leinster since lockdown.
The 32-year-old is in the Autumn of his career but he is showing no signs of slowing down. His main rival for that number one jersey, Dave Kilcoyne, suffered a serious-looking ankle injury when the two sides met in August.
Expect the experienced Leinster prop to be first-choice for Ireland when international rugby resumes.
2. Rob Herring
Since Rory Best’s retirement after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, there has been quite a bit of competition for the starting hooker shirt.
Ulster’s Rob Herring started each of the three Six Nations games in February and he has backed that up with solid outings for the northern province over the last few weeks.
Many people were thinking it was only a matter of time before Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher took on the mantle but he has contributed to some disappointing showings at the lineout in recent matches for Leinster.
Of course, there are many moving parts to a successful lineout, including the timing of lifters and jumpers but Farrell would not have been pleased to see Kelleher be a part of a misfiring setpiece.
3. Andrew Porter
Tadhg Furlong’s recent injury absence has seen Andrew Porter jump to the top of the Leinster queue at tighthead.
The 24-year-old Dubliner has been rock solid at the scrum and has also shown some lovely moments at the breakdown by winning some crucial turnovers.
Porter is the form tighthead in the country right now but Farrell will have to make a tough decision when Furlong returns to fitness.
4. Tadhg Beirne
After suffering a serious ankle fracture against Saracens in December 2019, Tadhg Beirne made his first appearance of 2020 with a man-of-the-match performance against Connacht a few weeks ago.
His display against Connacht was excellent. He was rock solid in the lineout and he provided a huge threat over opposition ball.
He was a little bit more muted against Leinster in the PRO14 semi-final but that could be said about much of the Munster team.
5. James Ryan
Yes, this may be a form XV but it feels wrong to leave James Ryan out of a starting Ireland team. The Leinster second-row has been out of action with a shoulder injury but he did make a return in the PRO14 final against Ulster where he put in a typically busy display.
He also followed that up with a physical performance against Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-final.
Expect the future Ireland captain to be back to his best very soon.
6. Caelan Doris
Caelan Doris played a lot of rugby at number eight for Leinster before the season was suspended but he has lined out at blindside flanker since rugby’s resumption with Jack Conan taking his place at the base of the scrum.
Doris has backed up his pre-lockdown form with a string of excellent performances. His huge work ethic sees him tackle and carry consistently throughout matches. He has excellent footwork too which allows him to target soft shoulders to get over the gainline more often than not.
He seems nailed on to start against Italy next month.
7. Will Connors
Will Connors is a chop-tackling machine.
The young flanker has developed a big reputation in a short period of time for his superb tackling technique which allows him to get low and hit players hard around the knees in order to stop them dead in their tracks.
He was immense in the PRO14 semi-final against Munster.
However, one area of his game that he needs to work on is his ball-carrying. It’s not where it needs to be at the moment but that will certainly develop over time.
We have picked a number eight to make up for this, however.
8. CJ Stander
When CJ Stander lined out against Leinster in the first match of the sport’s resumption, he looked a man revitalised.
Stander put in a typically physical performance with his robust ball carrying but the most impressive aspect of his game was his ability over opposition ball.
The Munster man secured four breakdown turnovers in that game and he got a few more against Leinster two weeks later.
Jack Conan has also been very good for Leinster over the last few weeks but with the new interpretations at the breakdown, Stander can flourish in this area on the international stage.
9. Conor Murray
This decision for this Ireland form XV may annoy people but Conor Murray has played pretty well since lockdown. The Limerick man gave Jordan Larmour all sorts of trouble with his box kicks in Munster’s first meeting with Leinster.
Although these weren’t as accurate in their follow-up meeting in the semi-final, Murray seems to have increased the tempo to his game somewhat while his passing has been very accurate.
Of course, John Cooney has been the man people have been calling for the past 12 months but even he will admit that he hasn’t been at his best over the last few weeks. He was dropped for the PRO14 final against Leinster as Alby Mathewson started ahead of him.
He was restored to the starting lineup against Toulouse but failed to stamp his authority on the game.
10. Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton will be Ireland’s starting out-half unless someone takes up the mantle and performs incredibly for their province.
Although there are plenty of talented out-halves operating throughout the four provinces, we have yet to see someone really make an argument to be included ahead of Sexton.
The 35-year-old can still operate at the highest level and we expect him to play Ireland’s biggest fixtures over the Autumn period.
11. Keith Earls
He may be 32 but Keith Earls is showing no signs of slowing down. The Limerick man showed his excellent finishing abilities in Munster’s first game with Leinster.
In the semi-final, he will be disappointed with how he handled a kick which eventually led to Leinster scoring the only try of the game.
Jacob Stockdale would generally be the man with the 11 shirt on his back but the Ulster man has been below average for the most part and he put in a particularly disappointing display against Toulouse.
12. Bundee Aki
He may have only played two games since the lockdown but Bundee Aki showed his huge appetite for work during those two fixtures.
Against Ulster and Munster, he displayed his incredible strength with ball in hand by scoring two tries. In the game against Munster, despite his side being down to 13 men, he caused Munster huge problems with his level of aggression and work-ethic in all facets of the game.
Robbie Henshaw has not performed poorly at all for Leinster but Aki just looks to be on another level at the moment so he gets the nod.
13. Garry Ringrose
Garry Ringrose is such a classy operator. His footwork is incredible which causes considerable problems for opposition defences. He’s also a superb defender and communicator in the backline.
The outside centre will face competition from an impressive Chris Farrell but Ringrose gets the nod, the Leinster man rarely puts in a bad game.
14. Jordan Larmour
Where do you play Jordan Larmour?
Leinster have been using the 23-year-old at fullback since the sport’s resumption this year but he has struggled at times, particularly under the high ball. He’s also failed to have an impact as a second receiver as you might expect from your fullback but this could be down to Leinster’s approach.
Nevertheless, he has shown a weakness under a high ball and for this reason we are putting him on the wing where he will likely have a bit more protection.
It’s a part of his game he really needs to work on because he has an abundance of talent in other areas.
15. Andrew Conway
Coaches tend not to put Andrew Conway at fullback and for the life of us, we can’t figure out why. The Munster man is excellent under a high ball as he has shown from his displays on the wing to date.
There is no one in Ireland you would want to jump up for a contestable more than Conway. The 29-year-old has carried on his excellent form from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and he looks as good as ever since the season resumed a few weeks ago.
We would love to see Andy Farrell give him a go at 15 for Ireland and as such, he has been included in our form XV.