Opportunity knocks for Ciarán Frawley as Ireland’s big guns return for Welsh challenge

Leinster man becomes the fourth Irish player to make his first championship start in this Six Nations as Farrell recalls experienced group

Andy Farrell doesn’t believe in four-year cycles and, drawing on his vast experience of team building, nor does he think ripping up a team and starting all over again is a recipe for success. Instead, he believes teams will evolve naturally and that this process should be handled carefully.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Warren Gatland helped kick-start the Irish revolution by handing five players their debuts in the transformative win over Scotland in 2000.

Even so, due to the retirement of Johnny Sexton, the emergence of Joe McCarthy and injuries to Mack Hansen and now Hugo Keenan, almost stealthily Ciarán Frawley becomes the fourth Irish player to make his first championship start in this year’s Six Nations when Ireland host Wales in round three at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday (kick-off 2.15pm).

Hence, despite more than his fair share of injuries, (akin to McCarthy, Jack Crowley and Calvin Nash all being part of the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa at the start of last season), Frawley has been in Irish squads since the November series of 2021, and started both games against the Maori All Blacks in the tour of 2022.


So even when they’ve been chucked in, it’s never been at the deep end.

Ireland vs Wales preview

Listen | 23:41

“It will always be the case and it has been the case as regards bringing people in because throwing people in at the deep end isn’t fair. I know that from my experience as a youngster playing,” said Farrell.

“I had a very experienced coach who gave me my debut. To throw five or six or seven of them in one go can be dangerous or detrimental. The master at the time was John Monie who brought me through,” said Farrell of his Australian coach at Wigan.

“And he used to say, ‘just a couple’ because those type of players, it doesn’t matter what age they are now, as far as the experience is concerned, they need looking after in a good side and what we’ve tried to do is keep people connected that we see down the road, discerning their potential on whether they grow by coming in.”

By way of signposting another potential debutant down the track, albeit where competition is stiff, Farrell added: “Thomas Ahern has been in this week and looked really good. I’m sure that he’s going to learn a lot as Oli [Jager] did etc, and that’s the plan. That’s how it should keep on rolling for us, so therefore when you say there’s a third or a quarter of the team that’s new, they’re not really new to us.”

The 28-year-old Jager is in line to make his Irish debut after being fast-tracked, relatively speaking, into the match-day 23 after first being brought to Portugal in the pre-Six Nations camp as ‘a training addition’, albeit he has a significant amount of work to his CV after seven trophy-laden years with the Crusaders.

“He’s a big man, very low maintenance, a proper man’s man, you know?” said Farrell, smiling. “The ‘tache says it all! He’s very knowledgeable, very well coached, and for a big man he gets around the field and has a good feel. He deserves his chance.”

In addition to Frawley’s selection, Farrell has made another six changes from the 36-0 win over Italy by restoring Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony and Bundee Aki – all of whom missed the Italian game at least partly through injury – as well as Josh van der Flier and Jamison Gibson-Park, who were replacements against the Azzurri.

Caelan Doris reverts to number eight, Peter O’Mahony reassumes the captaincy, and the six-two bench split is also brought back, with Cian Healy returning, and James Ryan, Ryan Baird and Jack Conan – all of whom were replacements in the Stade Velodrome before starting at home against Italy last Sunday week – accommodated among the replacements as they were in Marseille.

Conor Murray, rested against the Italians, is also recalled to the bench and the versatility of Jack Crowley and Frawley allows Farrell to name Stuart McCloskey, who started against Italy, at ‘23′. The only apparent cover for wing is Robbie Henshaw and Gibson-Park.

“There’s a risk with a 5-3, you can’t cover every permutation,” maintained Farrell, adding that the players have long since embraced the challenge of covering different eventualities and adding that the squad has more versatility as a result.

Having eclipsed the previous Irish record of a dozen home wins in succession, on Saturday this team will be seeking to extend their run of home wins to 18.

“Yeah, it’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s not something that I keep of track. They just roll over my head because it’s always just about the performance and getting the best out of ourselves and trying to be better the whole time.

“That’s what drives us more than anything. I suppose if you have that type of mentality hopefully things will chug along in the right direction but it’s nice to be told these things on the periphery, so that you’re aware of the progress that you are making.”

That being said, one of the keys to this sequence has been the manner in which Ireland have treated all their opponents with the utmost respect, and in the context of the unpredictable Welsh and the Six Nations, that isn’t going to change this week.

In keeping with a team that can swing form the hip as significant underdogs, Gatland has spoken of this Welsh team travelling to Dublin with “no fear” while another message from their camp is their intention not to let Ireland play to their attacking patterns in the manner France and Italy permitted them to do so.

“Well, we obviously know what they’ve been talking about, coming out of the blocks and causing chaos and we know it’s going to be a fight,” said Farrell. “We know they’re going to make it as tough as possible for us. But what we always concentrate on is ourselves and making sure that we put our game to the match, whoever it is that we’re playing.

“We have full respect in regard to what Wales are going to bring because they’re always unbelievably hard to beat and we expect them to be chomping at the bit. The two performances that they had, they could be coming here with two wins and no losses so we know exactly what we’re up against.”

So, while Wales have been cast as 23-point underdogs on handicap betting, this outside noise is not a concern to Farrell.

“No, because it’s certainly not how we view it. We view them in the highest regard. It’s a Test match. It’s a war of attrition and they’re going to give it absolutely everything they’ve got.

“We’ve got to manage ourselves from the start of the game to the end in the best way possible, really, because if we don’t we’ll come unstuck, really, there’s no doubt about that.”

IRELAND: Ciarán Frawley (Leinster); Calvin Nash (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jack Crowley (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster, capt), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster). Replacements: Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Oli Jager (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times