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‘It’s A Hell Of A Pack And A Good Team At That’ – Farrell

‘It’s A Hell Of A Pack And A Good Team At That’ – Farrell

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is pictured during the team announcement press conference in the Aviva Stadium ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Along with three injury-enforced changes, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell believes his team selection for tomorrow’s match against Italy will ‘keep competition in the right places’ as the Championship gathers pace.

Round two of the Guinness Men’s Six Nations takes in Edinburgh, London, and Dublin, as the three winning sides from the opening weekend return home looking to build further momentum in the title race.

Calf injuries have ruled out Ireland’s new captain Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Furlong, while a knee issue sees Bundee Aki rested. Ryan Baird, Finlay Bealham, and Stuart McCloskey come in for the experienced trio, respectively.

It will be Baird’s sixth Test start, and his third in the blindside flanker position. Jack Conan also packs down at number 8, and Mayo man Caelan Doris, who captains the team for the first time, switches to the openside berth.

James Ryan joins Joe McCarthy, last week’s player-of-the-match against France, in the engine room, and Bealham, who makes his fourth Six Nations start, features at tighthead prop just a few days after his wife Sarah gave birth to their first child, Joaquin.

Backs McCloskey and Craig Casey complete the six changes in personnel, with the latter’s inclusion at scrum half seeing Jamison Gibson-Park move to the replacements bench. It will be Casey’s first time to start a home Six Nations fixture.

Giving an update on the players nursing knocks, Farrell said: “Pete’s got a bit of a calf injury. That shouldn’t take too long, but he’s not trained this week at all.

“Exactly the same for Tadhg Furlong, he’s not trained at all but we’ve got a couple of days of training next week and they’d both be expected to be back for that, but this was too early.

Garry Ringrose (shoulder) is not quite right. Another week and he’s likely to be back into training as well next week. Bundee has got a rumbling knee that we can continue with this week, but it’s going to continue to rumble as well.

“Stuart McCloskey has been going well in training so he deserves a chance, and hopefully Bundee will get fit and well in the meantime.”

The last two times Ireland have played Italy in the Six Nations, Farrell has also made six changes. He is mindful of getting the balance right between rewarding last week’s performances and maintaining a high level of competition across the squad.

“Giving people another chance obviously, the lads who took the field last week to build on that, but also keeping competition in the right places. Like I always say, selection, it takes all sorts…all sorts of different permutations go through your mind.

“When you lose a couple of leaders, do you replace them with a leader or someone that deserves a chance? Iain Henderson coming onto the bench will help Caelan, I’ve no doubt, and making sure the changing room feels the way it should be with Pete and Tadhg not being there.

James Ryan champing at the bit to show his worth and start, and big Joe’s ready to compete again, and then obviously Calvin Nash and Jack (Crowley) get another shot at it.

“Ryan Baird has been playing outstandingly well to start the game. He’s obviously been very good for us off the bench, but to start the game is a different challenge for him.

“Craig Casey’s been jumping out of his skin and been playing well and deserves a start as well. For me, it’s a hell of a pack and a good team at that. It excites me being able to be in that type of position.”

The Wigan man resisted the temptation to tinker with his back-three, which only starts together as a unit for the second time. Limerick native Nash, who made his debut against Italy last August, holds onto the number 14 jersey following his try-scoring exploits in Marseille.

Hugo Keenan was a defensive rock at full-back on the tournament’s opening night, making some crucial tackles on Damian Penaud and Paul Boudehent in particular, while the value of James Lowe’s big left boot was very evident during the first round clash.

The Leinster winger, getting some important match minutes into him following just two recent starts for the province, kicked twelve times against France for a total distance of 475 metres, and tellingly, a total territory gain of 365 metres.

Asked about keeping the back-three intact, Farrell explained: “James Lowe hasn’t had much game-time, so another game under his belt would certainly help him.

“Calvin Nash is very inexperienced at this level, so now that last week is out of the way, he’s under way and up and running, this week will be a different challenge for him.

“There’s all sorts of things that go into it again, but having Hugo (Keenan) as part of that back-three obviously helps those two as well.”

Waiting in the wings to come on will be Lowe and Keenan’s provincial colleague, Jordan Larmour, who is poised for his first Six Nations appearance since 2021. In addition, there are Championship debuts in the offing for Jeremy Loughman and Harry Byrne.

The 24-year-old Byrne has edged out Ciaran Frawley to cover Crowley at out-half, as Ireland return to a five-three bench split this week. Byrne won his first two caps in 2021 with cameo roles against the USA and Argentina.

“With a six-two split, we all know Ciaran Frawley is ideal to cover off the bench, but not just cover off the bench but in his own right be able to start a game. I’m sure he’s going to be trying to prove a point within training to be able to do that,” acknowledged the Ireland coach.

“But having said that, Harry’s been great in training. He was fantastic, I thought, in his last outing for Leinster against Leicester, and he deserves a shot off the bench.

“When you’ve got somebody like Harry who could probably play 10 and maybe one other position at a push, it’s probably harsh enough to put him out of position at this stage in his international career, so that tends to shape whether it’s Ciaran or not really.

“I suppose (it’s) keeping the competition there with the 10s battling it out, and you’ve got to try and find another opportunity for people as well.”