Hugo Keenan out? Who starts at fullback for Ireland against Wales in the Six Nations?

Jared Wright
Ireland's Hugo Keenan, Ciaran Frawley, Jack Crowley and Jordan Larmour.

Ireland's Hugo Keenan, Ciaran Frawley, Jack Crowley and Jordan Larmour.

Ireland could be without star fullback Hugo Keenan for their Six Nations clash against Wales at the Aviva Stadium, leaving Andy Farrell with a selection conundrum.

While Farrell has plenty of depth throughout his squad, his outside back stocks have been significantly depleted ahead of the Six Nations, with Jimmy O’Brien and Mack Hansen both ruled out through injury.

And now he is set to be without one of the first names on his teamsheet week in and week out, Keenan. In fact, since Farrell has taken over as Ireland‘s head coach, no player has played more minutes for the side than the ever-reliable fullback (2 916). He has started 25 of the 28 Test matches since February 2021.

It is reported that he is set to return in time for the round four clash against England in March, but in the meantime, we take a look at Farrell’s options.

Front runner

When Keenan was forced off the pitch against Italy last week, it was fly-half Jack Crowley who shifted into the role, with Harry Byrne slotting into the first receiver channel. While this worked relatively well for the remainder of the match, it’s hard to imagine Farrell will move his in-form and still-developing playmaker out of the starting fly-half role.

This leads us to believe that the versatile talent that is Ciaran Frawley will fill Keenan’s void against Wales. The Leinster star is being tipped for a future in the fly-half berth but has thrived in multiple roles for his province in recent seasons, including fullback.

He has the skillset and the ability to fill the position with ease, and his inclusion at fullback would be a straight swap from the first-choice starting lineup, avoiding a backline shuffle.

On the fringe

Jordan Larmour is one of only five players (Keenan, Jacob Stockdale, Mike Lowry and Jimmy O’Brien) who have featured in the number 15 jumper during Farrell’s tenure and will fancy his chances of getting a run out against Wales.

He is seen as more of a winger in the current system, but his kicking game is not quite to the standard of Frawley and others, which will count against him, but he does have the positional awareness to fulfil the role.

Larmour was on the bench when Keenan withdrew against Italy, but Byrne was prompted to enter the fray instead of the livewire outside back. This may indicate that his skillset does not fit what Farrell requires from his fullback, or perhaps the Ireland boss preferred testing Crowley in the position instead, with Italy posing little threat at that stage.

In the mix

Crowley will certainly be in the mix, although, as alluded to above, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to take on the role, considering that he is still developing at number ten.

Hansen and O’Brien would have certainly been strong candidates had they not been injured, but the latest injury setback could provide an opportunity for a call-up.

There is also a case to be made for Stockdale, who is also one of the few players to start in the position during Farrell’s tenure. He fell out of favour with selectors due to a horrid run of injuries, and slotting him into the team in his secondary position could be the kind of show of faith he needs to hit top form again.

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Outside bets

While Byrne came on in the fly-half channel against Italy, he may well just be named at fullback against Wales. Much of the skillset that is required of a modern-day fullback is interchangeable for a fly-half, and he could share some of those responsibilities with Crowley.

Calvin Nash has impressed on the wing for Farrell’s side and has, on occasion, been featured in the 15 jumper for Munster. He may be in the mix, but again, it is unlikely that he will move from the position he thrived in while still new to the international stage.

Simon Zebo revealed that Farrell told him to “stay ready” after he missed out on the squad, and while he is recovering from a knee injury still, an elevation right to the starting XV wouldn’t be entirely out of the question considering his experience.

James Lowe has primarily played on the wing since his arrival in Ireland, but he does have a history of playing fullback for the Chiefs and Maori All Blacks, something that Ireland could tap into. Farrell has several wing options in the squad, which means that accommodating Lowe’s shift to fullback would be relatively straightforward. Still, they would need to make tweaks to ensure his cannon boot is not wasted – a relatively easy workaround.

Surely not

Under former head coach Joe Schmidt, Robbie Henshaw was entrusted with a starting fullback role against England at Twickenham. The Ireland star is a fantastic centre and a superb athlete, and while he had experience playing the position during his Connacht days, it was painfully clear that those days were behind him.

Farrell has several options at his disposal, and while they could comfortably deal with Henshaw shifting out of the centres – with Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Stuart McCloskey in their ranks – doing so to accommodate Henshaw playing fullback would be daft.

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