Not long to go now.
The resumption of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations is only a few days away with Ireland set to take on Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, October 24 before meeting France a week later on Saturday, October 31.
Ireland still have an opportunity to win the Six Nations title. Andy Farrell’s side currently lie in fourth on nine points with only four points separating themselves and England in first. Importantly, Ireland have a game in hand against Italy which is a fixture that Farrell will no doubt be targeting five points.
The Autumn Nations Cup takes places after the Six Nations and with seeding for the draw for the 2023 Rugby World Cup already decided, we would expect Farrell to use those fixtures as an opportunity to blood more players and experiment.
As such, we think Farrell will go with his strongest possible selection for the two remaining Six Nations fixtures with a maiden title for the new head coach very much a possibility.
Ireland’s strongest matchday 23 will look a lot different from that which played against Scotland, Wales and England at the beginning of the year. Farrell is already without the services of Tadhg Furlong, Keith Earls, Max Deegan and Dave Kilcoyne – four players who all featured for their country back in February.
The Ireland head coach will also be without the services of second-row Iain Henderson after the Ulsterman received a three-week ban for his red card offence against the Ospreys.
With a somewhat limited deck at his disposal, we have provided you with the strongest XV which Farrell could produce for the much-anticipated clash with Italy.
Predicted Ireland XV v Italy
The front-row will be relatively straight forward and you can expect Cian Healy and Andrew Porter to start at loosehead and tighthead, respectively. The number two shirt is a little bit more interesting but we expect Ulster’s Rob Herring to retain his place after the 30-year-old started all of Ireland’s games in the Six Nations earlier this year.
James Ryan is guaranteed a berth in Ireland’s strongest selection, the only question is who will start alongside him in the engine room? With Iain Henderson banned for the two Six Nations fixtures, Tadhg Beirne, Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux look set to battle it out.
We think Farrell will opt for Munster’s Beirne as the former Scarlets man offers a superb turnover threat on the deck which could be very useful considering the new interpretations at the breakdown.
Ireland’s back-row is often the most contentious of positions due to the sheer quality to choose from. CJ Stander has been absolutely superb for Munster since rugby resumed in August and we would expect him to take up the number eight shirt.
Caelan Doris is also likely to start considering his form for Leinster. Leo Cullen has been utilising Doris at blindside over the last number of weeks and he could slot into this role seamlessly for Ireland.
That leaves openside up for grabs and although Peter O’Mahony is capable of playing at seven, we’d expect it to be a shootout between the uncapped Will Connors and Josh van der Flier.
Connors has put in some superb displays for Leinster with his excellent chop tackling ability standing out although he had a difficult day out against Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-final. We think Farrell may opt for another experienced head in the back-row so van der Flier gets the nod.
Andy Farrell’s decision to omit John Cooney from the squad was a contentious one considering the 30-year-old was pushing Conor Murray all the way at the beginning of the year and was in line to start against Italy before the pandemic called a halt to the season.
Cooney, however, has had a number of disappointing performances for Ulster since rugby resumed and this seems to be the basis of Farrell’s decision.
This leaves Murray, Connacht’s Kieran Marmion and the uncapped Jamison Gibson-Park as the three scrum-halves in Farrell’s Ireland squad.
Although Murray has yet to reclaim the heights he hit during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he rightly remains the incumbent scrum-half in this team and it’s on Marmion and Gibson-Park to wrestle that nine jersey away from him.
Out-half is straight-forward. If Johnny Sexton is fit, then he should start barring a major drop in form or injury.
Ireland are well stocked in the centre with Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell all available.
Aki has been superb for Connacht since rugby’s restart and it looks like the extended break has worked wonders for him as he came back with an even bigger work-rate and intensity. We believe the 12 shirt is his right now and rightfully so.
We reckon Ringrose will hold on to the outside centre berth. His performances for Leinster have been excellent and he remains one of Ireland’s most naturally gifted footballers.
Due to Jordan Larmour’s injury, the full-back position is up for grabs. Whoever Farrell chooses to play at 15 will determine the make-up of Ireland’s wing spots.
Hugo Keenan and Shane Daly are both uncapped but have played very well at fullback for their respective provinces. You also have Jacob Stockdale and Robbie Henshaw who can deputise there.
Although we mentioned previously that Ireland will go with their strongest team possible, we think there is scope for an uncapped player to make their debut due to the opposition. We think Hugo Keenan could get the nod as he put in a decent shift against Saracens despite the result.
For the wing spots, Andrew Conway is nailed on for the right-wing having started in that position for Ireland’s three Six Nations fixtures before lockdown. As a result, we expect Stockdale to take the final wing spot although he has been playing at full-back lately for his province.
Potential Ireland XV to face Italy: Hugo Keenan, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Ed Byrne, John Ryan, Quinn Roux, Peter O’Mahony, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Robbie Henshaw.