Coach names his squad for the summer trip to New Zealand this Wednesday
For Andy Farrell, this is a pivotal and long-overdue moment in his Ireland tenure.
The pandemic denied him the chance to take his show on the road. The 2020 tour of Australia and the 2021 jaunt to Fiji were canned due to Covid-19, but it’s third time lucky for the coach who will name his squad for a daunting five-game trip to New Zealand on Wednesday.
A veteran of two Lions tours, Farrell knows the value of bringing his squad into enemy territory and testing them to the limits.
He has gone to the trouble of organising two extra fixtures against the Māori to give this spin an added layer of complexity, to test his players to the ultimate at the end of a long season.
That means he’ll bring an enlarged party to cope with the demands, with between 40 and 42 names expected on the list that will be released by the IRFU. Considering Joe Schmidt took 33 to Australia in 2018, it’s a big group and there’s a real sense that if you want to make the World Cup in France in 2023, you really should be on one of the three planes leaving for New Zealand in a week.
Touring The Land of the Long White Cloud is a daunting prospect, particularly at the end of a long season.
Since their last visit in 2012, Ireland have beaten the All Blacks three times and the relationship has shifted considerably. Thus, the eyes of the host nation will be on the tourists. The first Test in Auckland is already sold out and the two others in Dunedin and Wellington are heading that way.
That will bring a high level of scrutiny for the players, while they’ll also have to cope with the time-zone challenges, short days and winter weather.
Considering how much the 2019 squad struggled at the World Cup in Japan, it’s a challenge for the players, and while he’s built a more player-friendly environment since taking over from Schmidt, Farrell will be monitoring how every one of them copes with the demands.
Although there has been the odd call to rest some of the veteran players for this tour, there is no chance Farrell will leave anyone behind.
This is not a development tour, but a chance to create history by not only beating the All Blacks on home soil but by winning the series.
For the coaching ticket, it’s about honing a game-plan that has hummed so well in the last 12 months, while deepening the squad in areas where it needs to be strengthened.
Experimenting is not an option against the All Blacks, but the Maori games offer the next level of players a chance to impress.
Injury and suspension will open doors and everyone who travels will see pitch-time.
No doubt Farrell already has the vast majority of his squad picked and part of him would have been relieved that there’s no Irish involvement in Saturday’s United Rugby Championship final given the risk of injury,
Schmidt lost both Kearney brothers and Johnny Sexton in the 2016 Pro12 final ahead of the tour of South Africa, so while an Irish winner would have provided momentum, it might also have carried a cost.
Still, the Leinster and Ulster players will benefit from going deep in the season.
By the time the tour gets going, Connacht’s representatives won’t have played in six weeks and Munster will have had a month off. Neither set of contenders did themselves any favours with their end-of-season showing.
Versatility will be a key component when selecting the squad.
Getting to New Zealand in 2022 is no easy thing. Indeed, the travelling party has had to be split into three parties to get there, such is the reduction in flights to the country just emerging from its zero Covid bubble.
That means Farrell is unlikely to issue any late call-ups and no doubt Ireland are mindful of avoiding another Paddy Wallace situation, such are the scars of the Ulster centre’s arrival from a Portuguese beach to start opposite Sonny Bill Williams in the 60-0 loss ten years ago.
So, the squad is the squad, and thus, versatility will be a handy asset to have this week as players await the call.
When it comes to 50-50 decisions, the ability to cover a couple of positions may edge a player on to that plane.
Fitness is another issue, with James Lowe, Michael Lowry, Tadhg Beirne, Rónan Kelleher and Robert Baloucoune – who limped out of Ulster’s loss to the Stormers – all in a race to prove their ability to take part.
Farrell’s squad will have a familiar look to it, but there are a couple of crunch calls on his agenda.
Much depends on the fitness of Lowe, Lowry and now Baloucoune, with the Kiwi a certain starter against the country of his birth.
This year, Lowe and Hugo Keenan have been locked into the Nos 11 and 15 shirts and it’s been the right-wing berth that’s changed hands between Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Baloucoune and Mack Hansen.
Jordan Larmour’s form means he has to travel and could play a big role as he carries momentum and form while covering wing, full-back and even centre.
All of those will travel, while Lowry will be Keenan’s back-up if he can recover from his facial surgery. The Ulster starlet can play at out-half too – a valuable commodity.
Jimmy O’Brien would be the unlucky one to miss out in that scenario, but again, the Kildare native has versatility on his side and is likely to be the next cab off the rank.
Perhaps Ireland’s area of greatest strength, Farrell must choose whether to bring four or five centres with him.
Stuart McCloskey has been in exceptional form, but his Ireland career has never got going. While he’s playing more regularly and in a better team than Bundee Aki, Farrell will likely stay loyal to the Auckland-born powerhouse whose knowledge of the territory will count in his favour.
Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will travel as the first-choice pairing, but James Hume is getting closer and closer and can force Farrell’s hand with a performance against the Maori.
Whether Farrell brings a fifth centre likely rests on the identity of his three out-halves and Ciarán Frawley could slip into that role and force a few big hitters out of the picture.
Five of the six berths are probably taken, with Johnny Sexton captaining the squad and Joey Carbery as his back-up.
At scrum-half, Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray and Craig Casey have been Farrell’s go-to selections and that’s unlikely to change, despite another strong John Cooney showing on Saturday.
Jack Carty’s wrist surgery has opened up a slot as the third No 10 and there’s a crowded field jostling for that final berth.
While Harry Byrne appears to be the one earmarked as the next in line, the 23-year-old has only started four games at out-half for Leinster this season and can’t get into the match-day squad for the biggest occasions.
Farrell has picked him ahead of more proven operators before, but he’s cycled through Billy Burns, Ross Byrne and Carty without ever seeming convinced.
There’s a case to be made for Munster’s Ben Healy, but perhaps Frawley is the ideal man to go as a third-choice No 10 who can also play at inside centre and give Ireland a different attacking dimension with his passing game. It’s a tight call.
Considering the turnaround between games, Farrell could take three front-rows to New Zealand.
Kelleher’s shoulder is a major concern and they’ll do everything they can to get him fit to travel alongside Dan Sheehan and Rob Herring.
Ireland’s scrum is an issue and loosehead remains an area that needs urgent attention with the drop-off from Andrew Porter to the chasing pack as big as any position.
Cian Healy is in decline, but he remains the next best option while Dave Kilcoyne is out and his place could go to Munster colleague Jeremy Loughman. Loughman has impressed recently but may not have the size for the elite level.
At tighthead, Tadhg Furlong’s back is a worry, but he’ll tour and will be backed up by Finlay Bealham and Tom O’Toole, who gave a big display in Cape Town and may be primed to become the bench option.
SECOND ROW/BACK ROW
We’ll group these together because there’s a degree of cross-over, with Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and Ryan Baird capable of playing lock and No 6, if needed.
Uncapped Leinster lock Joe McCarthy received rave reviews when he came into the Six Nations squad and he is expected to travel, perhaps nudging Ross Molony out of the picture.
James Ryan, Henderson and Beirne have been Farrell’s go-to trio of match-day locks, while Kieran Treadwell had a decent Six Nations.
McCarthy’s athletic profile and attitude could see him muscling his way into the Test picture by the end of the month.
Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan are an established back-row combination, with Peter O’Mahony providing leadership and lineout nous off the bench.
The challenge for Gavin Coombes and Nick Timoney is to break up that order, while Cian Prendergast may be given another chance to impress despite Jack O’Donoghue’s fine season.
Predicted Ireland squad for tour of New Zealand
Back-three: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, James Lowe*, Andrew Conway, Robert Baloucoune, Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls, Michael Lowry*.
Midfielders: Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Hume.
Out-halves: Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Ciarán Frawley.
Scrum-halves: Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray, Craig Casey.
Hookers: Rónan Kelleher*, Dan Sheehan, Rob Herring.
Props: Andrew Porter, Cian Healy, Jeremy Loughman, Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham, Tom O’Toole.
Second-rows: James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne*, Joe McCarthy, Kieran Treadwell, Ryan Baird.
Back-rows: Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Peter O’Mahony, Gavin Coombes, Nick Timoney, Cian Prendergast.
Possible team to face the Maori
Michael Lowry; Mack Hansen, James Hume, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole; Tadhg Beirne, Joe McCarthy; Peter O’Mahony, Nick Timoney, Gavin Coombes. Reps: Dave Heffernan, Jeremy Loughman, Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Cian Prendergast, Conor Murray, Ciarán Frawley, Andrew Conway.
Possible Team for first Test
Hugo Keenan; Robert Baloucoune, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Reps: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Keith Earls.
Ireland Summer Tour to New Zealand (All games kick off at 8.05 Irish time and will be broadcast on Sky Sports)
Wednesday, June 29: Maori All Blacks v Ireland, 8.05, FMG Stadium (Hamilton)
Saturday, July 2: New Zealand v Ireland, 8.05, Eden Park (Auckland)
Saturday, July 9: New Zealand v Ireland, 8.05, Forsyth Barr Stadium (Dunedin)
Tuesday, July 12: Maori All Blacks v Ireland, Sky Stadium (Wellington)
Saturday, July 16: New Zealand v Ireland, Saturday, Sky Stadium (Wellington)