Tadhg Furlong has been ruled out of Ireland’s opening game Wales of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations against Wales next Saturday (kick-off 2.15pm, live on Virgin and BBC), meaning Finlay Bealham will start in his place with Tom O’Toole promoted to the bench. It will be Bealham’s first start in the Six Nations.
As expected, Stuart McCloskey has retained his place at inside centre in the continuing absence of Robbie Henshaw.
All told, there are three changes from the starting XV for the hard-earned 13-10 win against the Wallabies last time, as, as well as Bealham, James Lowe and Johnny Sexton return for Jimmy O’Brien and Jack Crowley.
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Lowe was sidelined the entirety of Ireland’s Autumn Series due to a calf injury he sustained in preseason training with Leinster, and despite the three wins Lowe’s ability to carry hard into contact and offload were missed.
Sexton withdrew less than an hour before kick-off against Australia and has only played twice for Leinster since then due to an operation on a facial injury, although he was able to train fully on Wednesday for the first time without the aid of a face mask and he has invariably produced strong performances after enforced absences before.
Furlong aside, the pack which started all three Tests in New Zealand as well as the November wins over both the Springboks and the Wallabies remains en bloc again.
The 30-year-old McCloskey started all three Autumn Series Tests against South Africa – when forced off after an impressive 25-minute return after 16 months away from the international arena – Fiji and Australia.
McCloskey partnered Garry Ringrose against the Springboks and, after Henshaw departed in the sixth minute with a recurring hamstring problem against Fiji, did so for the remainder of that game, as well as the November finale against Australia.
Saturday’s opening match will be McCloskey’s first Six Nations game since he made his debut in February 2016 against England at Twickenham, before having to wait 21 months for his next cap against Fiji. His ensuing four caps in the intervening period before last November, against USA (twice), Georgia and Japan, were scattered over four seasons.
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Admittedly, it has been a competitive Irish midfield also featuring two Lions centres in Henshaw and Bundee Aki, as well as Ringrose, and whereas they all bring an ability to play at both inside and outside centre, McCloskey is more of a specialist ‘12′.
It is a further measure of this Irish squad’s settled nature that six of the replacements in that win over the Wallabies are also retained. With the unfortunate Rónan Kelleher again ruled out due to the hamstring strain he sustained in the squad’s Portuguese training camp, Rob Herring is once more backup in tandem with Cian Healy and O’Toole, while Jack Conan, Ross Byrne and Bundee Aki are also retained.
The exceptions are Iain Henderson and Conor Murray. Henderson was coming back from a protracted absence while Murray injured his hamstring in his 100th cap against South Africa. Their experience has been preferred to Joe McCarthy and Craig Casey.
Byrne is back in favour after bridging an 18-month gap from the Test arena by landing the difficult 45-metre clutch penalty to beat Australia, and has also guided Leinster to 15 of their 17 wins in 17 games this season, starting all but four of them.
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Aki has played relatively little rugby this season, his seven appearances amounting to 375 minutes in total, but based on previous selections when he has been available, the Irish coaches have shown a liking for picking the Connacht centre as an impact replacement, even after lengthy absences.
This was the case for the first and second Tests in New Zealand, and against Australia, when Aki was sprang from the bench to score the winning try.
Meanwhile, Roman Salanoa, the uncapped 25-year-old Hawaii-born tighthead who is having a breakthrough season at Munster, has been added to the Irish squad as cover and to give him experience of an away Six Nations match.
While it is sure to intensify the atmosphere, and the possibility previously caused Joe Schmidt concern in the 2019 defeat, Farrell welcomed the decision to have the roof closed at the Principality Stadium.
“It’s great. It’s a fantastic stadium. We’ve been there before when it’s closed and there’s no atmosphere like it. It can only be good for us. We have to agree with the roof being closed. We wanted it closed as well to sample the atmosphere and keep progressing on our journey.
“It doesn’t really get any tougher than Wales first up,” he added when asked if the enclosed stadium will make Ireland’s task even tougher.
“Everyone has spoke over the last two weeks about the record. My record’s not great there either. Thinking back, I lost there for Saracens and I actually played a rugby league game there and lost there as well,” he said in reference to Wigan 32-16′s loss against St Helens in the 2004 rugby league Challenge Cup final and Saracens losing an Anglo-Welsh Cup game in 2008.
“So we know that it’s a really tough place to go, but that’s where we want to be. We want to challenge ourselves. What I would say is that we judge ourselves on our preparation and our preparation has been top drawer. It’s as good as I’ve seen it in regards to getting ready for any type of competition.
Farrell knowingly laughed off Warren Gatland’s claim that this game constituted “a free hit” for Wales given Ireland are firm favourites.
“I don’t know about a ‘free shot’. A free shot in Test match rugby? Where do you get them from? We’d love to be able to buy one of those. Maybe I’ll buy him a free shot after the game.
“But there’s absolutely no doubt that Warren will expect his side to win, and so do I, I expect our side to win. His past record shows what he’s about in this competition. Finding a way to win has always been key to those teams, and we’re very aware of that.”
Regarding Furlong’s ongoing recuperation from his calf injury, the Irish head coach said: “He’s progressing pretty well but he’s not quite there yet. He could possibly be there in the next few days or week or whatever, but we just think that Finlay deserves it as well.
Describing the Connacht tighthead as “a massive personality within our squad”, Farrell said: “He’s playing some outstanding rugby at this moment in time. The last game he played, he scored a hat-trick, he’s scrummaging very well, so he deserves a start. Tadhg will keep working away to hopefully be fit for the French game.”
Aki’s potential impact off the bench again outweighed his relative lack of game time.
“Bundee will make the dressingroom feel right, 100 per cent him being there on the bench, and he did that in the autumn, brought a great deal of power and experience on to the field. We’re expecting more of the same in that regard.”
Interestingly, with regard to Byrne’s selection over Crowley, Farrell said his decision was “just [based on] training really, just how he’s gone about his business, and he’s continued like we knew he would do, regarding how he’s played for Leinster.
“The ownership, the authority that he’s got within his game, and the ownership of the plan going forward. When you have authority like that, there tends to be a lot of trust around you. He’s had a good 12 days with us.”
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Tom O’Toole (Ulster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht).