Ireland: Winners and losers from Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad
Head coach Andy Farrell has named a 37-man Ireland squad ahead of the upcoming Six Nations Championship.
Farrell has gone for the tried and tested, with Jamie Osborne the only uncapped player in the group, but there are still plenty of talking points.
Planet Rugby studies the squad and looks at who deserves their spot, who is fortunate and which players will be cursing their misfortune.
Leinster talent gets his shot
Ireland and Leinster appear to have unearthed another gem in the form of this gifted back, who can play at either full-back or centre. Osborne has been in outstanding form for the Irish province this season and his standout display against Gloucester at 12 last weekend proved to be very timely. He scored a lovely try, taking a superb line before weaving his way past the final defender, and then showed his vast array of skills during the clash.
It was a wonderful performance and gives Farrell another option in the midfield, especially with Robbie Henshaw having his injury concerns. Osborne is the only uncapped player in the 37-man group but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him given an opportunity over the next couple of months. He has the skills and athleticism to go with the game intelligence, which is a potent mix as Ireland build towards the Rugby World Cup.
Ross Byrne’s consistency rewarded
Having spent time in the international wilderness, the Leinster fly-half returned at the end of the Autumn Nations Series and kicked the match-winner against Australia. It was a remarkable story for a player who looked way down the pecking order, but he has now taken Joey Carbery’s place in the squad for the Six Nations.
Evidently buoyed by that personal highlight, Byrne has gone from strength to strength for Leo Cullen’s men. He obviously does not play the big games when Johnny Sexton is fit but, in the absence of the Ireland captain, the 27-year-old has shone. He was another to produce a fine display against the Cherry and Whites in the Champions Cup.
Centrally contracted strugglers
Ireland have one of the best systems around, which has allowed them to become a genuine rugby powerhouse, but nothing is perfect and it does have one particular drawback. Farrell is under no obligation to pick the centrally contracted players – those who have part of their salary paid by the IRFU – but no doubt there will be a certain pressure to.
Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale are among those to have a deal in place and coincidently have been selected in the 37-man group, despite their poor form. Murray and Earls aren’t even guaranteed picks for Munster at the moment, yet they have been named by Farrell for the upcoming tournament, while Stockdale has struggled after returning from a lengthy injury. It is still a remarkably strong squad but that factor has perhaps hampered Farrell in terms of picking all the in-form players.
☘️ '𝐖𝐈𝐍𝐆𝐄𝐑 𝐒𝐘𝐍𝐃𝐑𝐎𝐌𝐄' 🔵
🗣️ 'I was amazed to see that he'd started something like 2 games in a year and a half!'@gerrythornley & Andy Dunne look at the downturn in Jacob Stockdale | 🏉
🗣️ 'He was a very special player in 2018!'@VodafoneIreland | #TeamOfUs pic.twitter.com/AClnOJMS11
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) January 19, 2023
Another number eight coming into contention
While Murray and Earls can count themselves fortunate, one individual who certainly deserves to be there is behemoth number eight Gavin Coombes. He may even be in contention to start given his outstanding form for the Limerick outfit. Coombes is an outstanding talent who just looks readymade for Test rugby, considering his physicality and athleticism.
His skills are still developing, which means that Caelan Doris has his nose in front for now, but there’s a real edge to the way the 25-year-old plays. He is extremely difficult to stop from close range and often makes ground in traffic, a key facet in being successful at Test level with defences so well-drilled nowadays. Coombes very much deserves plenty of game time over the next two months.
The Ulstermen’s poor form has seen a number of players axed from the squad. As already mentioned, Stockdale does get in but we pondered whether his central contract had more to do with that selection. Stalwart Iain Henderson is also picked, a player that always shows up for Ireland, and they are joined by Stuart McCloskey, Rob Herring and Tom O’Toole, but it is overall a pretty poor showing from Dan McFarland’s men.
Kieran Treadwell, who was a regular in the 23 during 2022, is the biggest omission, while Nick Timoney, Mike Lowry, Robert Baloucoune and James Hume are others to lose their place in the 37-man group. To be honest, you can’t really argue too much with Farrell’s decision. Baloucoune may have an argument, especially with out-of-form duo Earls and Stockdale making it, but so do Munster duo Calvin Nash and Shane Daly, who are in better form than those three. There is much to ponder for the Belfast-based outfit.
Joey Carbery drops down the pecking order
Carbery’s career has been fascinating. After breaking through in 2016, many people within Ireland thought they had a star on their hands, but he has never quite fulfilled that promise. Indeed his debut, just over six years ago, hinted at great things as he came on to play a role in Ireland’s first-ever victory over New Zealand.
However, he has not really nailed down a place in the squad since, nor has he managed to properly challenge Sexton for that 10 shirt. Lengthy injuries have certainly not helped but his selection in previous squads has often been based on potential and promise, rather than form, and ultimately we wonder whether this has hampered Carbery over the years.
As Three Red Kings, a Munster fan and excellent analyst, has correctly identified, the fly-half is playing better now than when selected in previous squads. But perhaps that is partly why Farrell has decided to axe the 27-year-old. Carbery could well challenge Sexton for the pivot role heading into the World Cup but he needs to prove himself on a weekly basis, rather than losing game time by being on the fringes of the international squad.
His challenge now is to play regularly for Munster, find some consistency in performance over the new few weeks and months and then he will no doubt come back into contention.
Thing is, Carbery being excluded isn't a massive surprise but tbh he's been playing a lot better recently than he has prior to previous call-ups.
This feels like a big hinge moment in his career.
— Three Red Kings (@threeredkings) January 19, 2023
Munster’s stock fails to rise
On the subject of Munster players, others can perhaps feel hard done by. The Irish province endured a difficult start to the campaign under new head coach Graham Rowntree, but there has been notable progress over the past few months. Ireland stalwarts Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne have obviously had a big say in that, but so have full-back Mike Haley and lock Jean Kleyn.
Haley in particular is in the form of his life and can count himself very unlucky to have not made the squad, with Kleyn equally not being rewarded for his provincial form. And there are the two wings, Nash and Daly, who are performing extremely well at the moment.
Munster haven’t been penalised like Ulster have for their mixed results, with Earls, Dave Kilcoyne and Murray experienced heads who have got in despite not being at their best this season, but some tight calls have gone against their in-form individuals.
Robbie Henshaw’s injury struggles a concern
The centre has suffered an injury-hit season but when fit he is an automatic selection in Farrell’s squad. It is therefore a worry that his recovery is taking longer than expected and that, judging by the group named, he is not expected to be back for the opening two matches.
Leinster have remained coy over Henshaw’s recovery and you do wonder whether he will take any part in the tournament considering his omission from the group. It is both a short-term concern and a potential longer-term issue, with the 29-year-old’s injury issues mounting up.
Henshaw has struggled to get out on the field for a consistent period of time over the past few years, which is a worry for player, province and country, especially looking ahead to the World Cup.
READ MORE: Ireland: Uncapped Jamie Osborne included as Joey Carbery and injured Robbie Henshaw miss out