If you’re a wannabe whose hopes have just been dashed by exclusion from this November squad, you’ll be praying next summer in New Zealand is a tour that goes full steam ahead. There were lots of lads over the years happy to be marked absent from that particular trip.
oreboding at any time, three Tests down there as numbers nine, 10 and 11 on your match calendar is less attractive than having them for a one-off in Dublin in November. A World Cup on the horizon changes that perspective. Who knows what the injury profiles will be like by then. It could be just the ticket for those with aspirations of making it to France 2023.
Andy Farrell’s tricky phone calls/texts list – calls surely – will be a mix of moderate to medium difficulty. Let’s start at the top. Jack Carty is in good form and has been left off a list of three that fit the following profiles: Johnny Sexton, whose calf may well be more an issue than his hip flexor, has been going very well, though his fitness to face Japan is unclear; Joey Carbery is going okay; Harry Byrne is not going at all.
So how has this come to pass when Carty was the starter against Japan in the World Cup? Well, maybe Farrell fell out of love with the Connacht playmaker back then, that he just wants to be friends. It’s very hard to change a relationship like that. The player needs a door to burst open, and to stay on his game in the meantime. In that context it’s hard to see what Billy Burns can do to change his personal picture with Farrell.
As partners for the three 10s Farrell has gone for small, medium and large – all of them established as contenders of varying degrees of ability and experience. If you were either of Jack Carty’s servants in Connacht, Caolin Blade and Kieran Marmion, you could legitimately ask why Craig Casey is ahead of you.
‘Eh, because he’s the best passer of a ball in the country,’ would be a fair response.
You would have to add however that for all his energy and positivity Casey carries no threat to his running game, which represents a weakness in any team not stacked with beasts.
Factor in Nathan Doak. It’s interesting to see he hasn’t been included as a close-up but non-travelling passenger, like Thomas Ahern and Jamie Osborne. Maybe the intel from Ulster is to leave well enough alone and let him develop at provincial level. If you’re talking about potential however – from passing to kicking out of hand, and off the tee, to try-scoring ability and game management, Doak is in a different class. Let’s see where he is by the time New Zealand rolls around in July.
Farrell should also give Dave Heffernan a bell to let him know where he stands. Dan Sheehan is the talk of the town these days and the whispers started a few years ago when he was more than holding his own as a kid against front-rowing menfolk in the AIL. But Heffernan is a lump who can play and is not far off. Unfortunately for him, Sheehan is also a lump – and leaves holes behind him wherever he goes. Hooker currently is not an area of concern for Farrell.
Loosehead is another story. Andrew Porter is world class, an amazingly good rugby player whose transition back across the scrum would have started sooner but for the long-term injury issue last year for Tadhg Furlong. Behind Porter now are Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne. The former is a freak who has done incredibly well to stay fit and functional; the latter a solid citizen. There is no young loosehead kicking the door in – and that’s not good. On the other side of the scrum, Finlay Bealham deserves his place.
The five second rows Farrell is juggling at the moment are a mix of injury issues and questions over where best to be played.
Tadhg Beirne for example should be Ireland’s starting number six - but will probably have to leave that to Peter O’Mahony – while Ryan Baird must be wondering will he wander through the rest of his rugby career with double digits on his back. Is he a five or a six? Is there a chance of him getting enough starts to find out? Wycherley, meanwhile, plays like he wants to start every game - now.
These don’t look like critical questions for Farrell because he is so well stocked currently with back rowers. Josh van der Flier’s reaction, for example, to being ignored by the Lions has been to make a detailed case for picking him ahead of the explosive and in-form Nick Timoney. Fair enough.
Already, however, Farrell is running out of road to test players under the right conditions. It will be another eight games – the end of the Six Nations – before he draws breath, driven all the way by match preparation and keeping his stats up.
You’d hate to think Ireland will be going to France 2023 with question marks over the suitability of a handful of travellers. New Zealand in late July will give him a decent snapshot. Fingers crossed rugby is in a safe place by then.