Thursday 23 January 2020

Cian Tracey: 'Lack of a standout hooker leaves Farrell facing dilemma ahead of the Six Nations'


Rónan Kelleher is apparently very close to making his return. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rónan Kelleher is apparently very close to making his return. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It said a lot about Ireland's strength in depth, or lack of perhaps, that none of their hookers were deemed to be playing well enough to put any realistic pressure on a 37-year-old who himself wasn't exactly in top form.

Rory Best's recent admission that he found it "tough" playing two games in six days at the World Cup was even more damning as neither Sean Cronin nor Niall Scannell put the pressure on Joe Schmidt to make a big decision.

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Rob Herring joined the party later on in the tournament when Cronin picked up a neck injury, but the Ulster man wasn't in Japan long enough to make any meaningful impact.

Andy Farrell will name his first Ireland squad today ahead of the Six Nations and if we are to go on his mini camp before Christmas, Scannell, Herring and Rónan Kelleher will be the three hookers included.

Cronin was left out of the extended squad, which doesn't bode well for his chances of adding to his 72 caps, even if he is fit again.

The 33-year-old has had to bide his time for so long behind Best and just when it looked like it might finally be his time to claim Ireland's No 2 jersey, he has been unable to win back his place in Leinster's starting team.

Kelleher is very much the coming man in Leinster and while it won't be long before he becomes Ireland's first-choice hooker, a fractured hand has hampered his chances of forcing his way in against Scotland on February 1.

The 21-year-old had been expected to return this weekend following a six-week lay-off, but he is not quite fully fit and will not be rushed back - presumably with the Six Nations in mind.

It would have been a huge call to throw him in for the opener anyway even if he was the starting hooker in the form team in Europe before he picked up the knock last month, Kelleher would have had justifiable claims to make his debut sooner than some may have predicted.

He must now focus on getting back up to speed, and the word is that he is very close to returning, before he sets his sights on making his breakthrough in green.

Seven tries in eight games this season has seen Kelleher grab plenty of headlines and although Farrell will be cautious about throwing such a young player into the front-row this early in his career, he would be helped by having already played and trained alongside the likes of Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter.

Either way, it is merely a question of when he is a regular face in the Ireland team.

For so long, Scannell had been touted as the natural successor to Best, but he hasn't been able to put together a consistent run of form over a prolonged period to back up that assertion.

Now 27, the Munster man needs to bring his game up a level.

Lineout throwing has been an issue for all three of the experienced hookers at one stage or another, which isn't exactly ideal heading into the Six Nations.

Herring had a tough day at the office in Clermont last weekend and will still be having nightmares about a lost lineout deep inside the French side's 22 when Ulster had a man advantage.

That will not have gone unnoticed by Farrell, who will naturally put a big emphasis on Ireland's set-piece.

If Herring could sort out his darts in time, he may well start the Scotland game because his abrasiveness around the pitch makes him a very dynamic ball carrier.

So much of the lineout comes down to the caller and while Iain Henderson did it for large parts during the World Cup, it will be fascinating to see if James Ryan will be pushed to take on more of that responsibility.

That's before we mention the form lock and best caller in the country Devin Toner, who is nailed on for a return after bouncing back from his World Cup disappointment.

Farrell is expected to name approximately 38 players in his squad with Kelleher, Caelan Doris and Max Deegan leading the charge of the uncapped players pushing for inclusion.

There will be some casualties considering 45 players met up before Christmas as the new head coach gets his first taste of making those difficult calls.

That will only be the start of it, however, as Farrell turns his attention to even more tough decisions, including who Ireland's starting hooker will be for the visit of Scotland to the Aviva Stadium in two weeks' time.

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