Plenty of changes.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has named a matchday 23 for the first time in almost eight months as his side get set to take on Italy on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium as the 2020 Six Nations resumes after a lengthy layoff.
Ireland and Italy are the only sides involved this weekend as they both have a game in hand and Farrell’s men will be hoping for a bonus-point win to give themselves the best opportunity of winning the title on the final day.
Farrell has had to contend with a number of injuries and the former rugby league star has named a much-changed side to the one which was soundly beaten by England at Twickenham at the end of February.
Here are the main talking points from Wednesday’s team selection
Two uncapped players have been named in the starting XV with Will Connors and Hugo Keenan set to get their first taste of senior international action. There are two potential debuts on offer on the bench too with Ed Byrne and the newly qualified Jamison Gibson-Park ready to make a maiden international appearance.
After enjoying an excellent 7s career, Keenan made a proper breakthrough at Leinster last season as he made 13 appearances for the eastern province. He has really put his hand up since rugby’s restart, however, with a string of excellent performances seeing him start the PRO14 semi-final, final and the Champions Cup quarter-final with Saracens.
Keenan was utilised on the wing in all of those games before switching to fullback in Leinster’s first two matches of the new season. Farrell has opted to select him on the wing for his international debut and the head coach will hope he can bring that excellent running ability which he has displayed thus far in blue.
Will Connors has been a revelation for Leinster over the last 12 months and he has put huge pressure on Josh van der Flier at Leinster which saw the 24-year-old start the PRO14 semi-final with Munster and the Champions Cup final against Saracens.
Connors, as you might know, excels in defence with his line speed and chop-tackling ability really standing out. Farrell will hope that he replicates this on the international stage.
Jacob Stockdale at full-back
It seems that Farrell is thinking along similar lines to Ulster head coach Dan McFarland as Jacob Stockdale has been selected in the 15 shirt for Saturday’s game with Italy. Stockdale has played at fullback in Ulster’s last two fixtures in addition to three games at the backend of last season.
With Jordan Larmour ruled out for 16 weeks due to a dislocated shoulder, it opened the door for a new face at fullback and Farrell has granted that opportunity to Stockdale.
The Ulster star hasn’t hit the same lofty heights as he did during the 2018 season and it’s perhaps unfair to compare him to that period due to the sheer world-class ability which he displayed at that time.
However, it seems that Stockdale doesn’t have the same level of confidence when compared to his breakthrough season. The 15 jersey might suit him and if he goes well here, he could be a long-term option at fullback on the international stage.
Ireland have a plethora of options in the back-row but it makes sense that Farrell has opted to selected Will Connors at openside.
As touched on briefly, Connors’ real strength lies in his line-speed and chop-tackling ability. With Farrell having a key eye for defence and as a man who takes real pride in that aggressive, suffocating edge on the other side of the ball, the 24-year-old could fit the bill.
Farrell would have been hugely disappointed with Ireland’s defensive performance against England last time out as his side’s lack of line speed and aggression in defence invited England’s ball carriers to get over the gainline time and time again.
Connors has an uncanny ability to flirt with the offside line and his acceleration often sees him meet the ball carrier before he can decide what to do next. These often lead to huge defensive gains and unforced errors for the opposition. Farrell will be hoping to the same effect occurs on Saturday.
Connors needs to improve his ball-carrying but this, naturally, will take time. He has back-up in that area as CJ Stander and Caelan Doris will happily take on that burden.
There’s a nice balance to this back-row and if it goes well, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it in action once again against France next weekend.
Ireland Team v Italy
Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Hugo Keenan, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.