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Gordon D’Arcy: Pecking order at outhalf is of national interest given Carbery's injury woes

Interpros vital in assessing Farrell’s options for Ireland squad

I'm sure Robert Burns may have smiled had he lived to see the world we live in today. His observation about 'the best laid plans of mice and men' an apt metaphor for daily life, let alone professional sports at the moment.

The best laid schemes of coaches and players require both fluidity of planning and resilience of body and soul to survive the current coronavirus pandemic, perhaps even more so since the arrival of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

In the spirit of metaphors, matches are falling like tenpins and, with the Irish provinces trying to shape destinies across two tournaments simultaneously during December and January, it is proving to be a tricky and frustrating process.

I have spoken before in the column about how Ireland head coach Andy Farrell would have marked in his diary with a red circle the interprovincials over the Christmas period; a series of mini Irish trials ahead of the Six Nations Championship that he hoped would help to clarify the pecking order across several positions on foot of what has been an excellent eight-match winning streak for the national team.


The cancellation of last weekend’s games, with Munster due to host Leinster at Thomond Park and Connacht slated to make a trip to Belfast, removed two marquee matches from that fixture schedule. It has also acted as an unsolicited break from playing for the provinces at a time when they are seeking continuity.

Munster had previously gone seven weeks without a match but responded brilliantly with a patched up Covid-hit squad to beat Wasps in Coventry and then, with a more familiar looking group, Castres at Thomond Park, both in the Heineken Champions Cup.

Buoyed by that momentum, they would have relished a tilt at Leinster in Limerick on St Stephen’s Day as they switch back to the United Rugby Championship until mid January.

Leinster’s Covid-19 issues first surfaced in the week of the Bath game but really blew up when forcing them to forfeit the Montpellier match in accordance with EPCR tournament rules and subsequently completing a deeply frustrating fortnight in successfully seeking a postponement of the Munster clash.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen will be acutely aware that after this Saturday's trip to Belfast his charges sit out the following weekend after their URC game with the Lions was pushed back to the end of February. They are then due to play their final two pool matches in Europe, at home to Montpellier before heading for Bath in the final pool match.

Connacht face a similar predicament after hosting Munster on New Year’s Day as their match with the Stormers has also been put back to the final weekend in February. Munster and Ulster, who meet at Thomond Park on Saturday week, are scheduled to play on both weekends before European competition resumes.

One position

Farrell, along with the respective provincial coaches, will be keeping fingers and toes crossed that next Saturday’s games go ahead. The Irish coach will enjoy watching so many head-to-head duels across the two matches but there is one position in particular in which he’d like a more clearly defined picture; that’s outhalf. Unfortunately there’s way too much static at the moment.

The elbow injury and subsequent surgery undergone by Munster's Joey Carbery – his rehabilitation period hasn't been publicly confirmed – means that playing interviews are being conducted once again for the role as understudy to Johnny Sexton, the Ireland captain on the way back from leg issues sustained in the 29-20 win over the All Blacks.

The initial prognosis for Sexton’s return was six weeks from mid November which would have put his return to action in the ballpark of this weekend. If he doesn’t play, then the next available game is the European tie against Montpellier at the RDS.

Lowry has the eye-catching footwork and acceleration, Keenan very secure in everything he does. Safe does not mean boring, far from it in the Leinster player's case

For Farrell, if not Cullen, there would arguably be more to be learned from watching Harry Byrne or Ross Byrne wear Leinster's number 10 jersey in Belfast. Sexton's original injury and a full fixture schedule in the interim should have provided opportunities to further evaluate who should be back-up at Leinster, and perhaps beyond.

Can Harry manage a game in a composed manner without compromising his natural flair and stay injury-free? Can Ross add a running threat to his game and threaten the gainline more and bring out the best in the backline to complement his top-notch kicking game?

We’re no further down the road there than we were before the Bath match. That’s pretty much been the way for a while and the uncertainty doesn’t help Leinster or Ireland.

The fact that Billy Burns is likely to be at outhalf for Ulster permits a little direct comparison; he's another player who will want to be involved with Ireland in the Six Nations Championship. It's not a linear equation watching two 10s duke it out in one match because there are so many peripheral factors, but it's a reasonable measuring tool nonetheless.

On a brief tangential note there are other tussles that will be of huge interest selection-permitting, Jamison Gibson-Park and John Cooney; Andrew Porter and Marty Moore or Tom O'Toole; Josh van der Flier and Nick Timoney; how the in-form Michael Lowry and Ethan McIlroy cope.

Lowry has been consistently excellent and it would be interesting to gauge his influence against that of Hugo Keenan, who hasn't put a foot wrong for Leinster or Ireland. Lowry has the eye-catching footwork and acceleration, Keenan very secure in everything he does. Safe does not mean boring, far from it in the Leinster player's case.

Perhaps the marquee match-up is a potential midfield dice between James Hume and Garry Ringrose. Hume won't have his regular sidekick Stuart McCloskey, out injured, beside him in the midfield and in that respect must avoid a compulsion to do too much.

I remember playing a European Cup match against Wasps in England when Brian O'Driscoll was missing through injury. I should have created space for my midfield buddy that day, Kieran Lewis, been more of a decoy but either through ego or naivete, I tried to do too much on my own. Wasps quickly appreciated this and shut me down. That hurt my team. Hume has to avoid that pitfall, knowing when and how to step in and stamp his class on the match.

Ulster’s recent victory in the RDS, a match they dominated everywhere but the scoreboard, will have hurt Leinster; they’ll have to face a much stronger team in Belfast. It’d be great if both sides were pretty full, going at it hard. Farrell would certainly appreciate that scenario. The fact that both Ulster and Leinster are competing in the same pool adds a little more spice.

The Cooney scenario is particularly interesting. He’s been back to his best for Ulster in recent times and the way he plays the game should be tailor-made for Farrell’s blueprint with Ireland. All Cooney can do is produce once again on Saturday and hope for a change in his circumstances.

Proper opportunity

Returning to the outhalf theme with an eye on Munster's short journey to the Sportsground on Saturday, Carbery's absence means Ben Healy or Jack Crowley will wear the 10 jersey. Johann van Graan's preference has been for Healy so one would imagine he will continue in that vein, with Crowley perhaps seeing a little more game time off the bench.

There’s an argument that handing Crowley the starting slot and surrounding him with first-choice players inside and out would give the talented young outhalf a proper opportunity to demonstrate where he is in his development.

I’ll admit that I have a natural bias towards Crowley, as I can see a younger version of myself enjoying front-foot ball with his attacking instincts. However, Healy is likely to continue at 10 given recent Munster selection history policy, and how he shows in the next two weeks will leave a strong imprint on the minds of the national coaching group.

I have begun to sound like a broken record but the pecking order at outhalf is so important to the national team that it cannot be overstated

Connacht coach Andy Friend has no such conundrum when it comes to his premier outhalf. Jack Carty has been excellent in leading the team in every respect, the in-form 10 across the four provinces.

Carty is currently battling an ankle issue and will be desperately keen to play against Munster. He knows that another high-calibre performance at the weekend should in theory nudge him closer to being part of a conversation when it comes to the Ireland squad for the Six Nations.

I feel that akin to Cooney though, unless their performances are ground-breaking there is little hope of the status quo being changed.

Just as in the other interpro, there are plenty of players looking to make a point in Galway with potential match-ups like Dave Kilcoyne against Finlay Bealham, Kieran Marmion against Conor Murray or Craig Casey, while for young Connacht forwards like Niall Murray and Cian Prendergast standing out in this company never hurts.

In the absence of actual matches to digest, I have begun to sound like a broken record but the pecking order at outhalf is so important to the national team that it cannot be overstated. There are three interpro fixtures to be played over the next fortnight and at this stage the fervent hope is that this weekend’s games go ahead.

At some point in the near future we may hear a player talk about a ‘sliding door’ moment from all of this mess, we are seeing the moments that seem relatively tame or relevant to that time but they will nonetheless shape the trajectory of Irish rugby. The fun bit is watching and then looking back, let us hope the first bit happens this weekend.