Having omitted John Cooney from his international squad for the final 2020 Six Nations matches, many thought the scrum half had done enough to force his way back into Andy Farrell’s plans for the Autumn Nations Cup with his PRO14 performances recently
Cooney is the notable absentee from the squad announced on Thursday while Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Billy Burns, Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey are the Ulster representation in the panel.
Selfishly, from an Ulster perspective Cooney’s absence is a blessing for his club side who are looking to make it a five from five start in the PRO14 for the first time since the 2016-17 season. The Ulstermen are the side least affected from the internationals and I suspect we’ll see McCloskey and Burns released from Camp Ireland.
The scrum half wasn’t able to recreate his sparkling form after the restart of rugby and was benched for the PRO14 final against Leinster. He has however made a roaring start to this season, showing good touches in the games against Benetton and Ospreys before putting in a man of the match performance against Cardiff last Monday night.
The speed of the ball from the ruck was fantastic across both games while he was also able to contribute six assists and one try in his four appearances this season.
Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion and Jamison Gibson-Park are the scrum halves included in the squad with the latter making his international debut against Italy two weeks ago. Marmion and Gibson-Park have been the form scrum halves since rugby returned and deserve their inclusions in the squad.
Murray has struggled with injury recently, leaving it a choice between the Munsterman and Cooney for the final scrum half spot. Rightly or wrongly, Murray’s central contract leads me to believe he was ever going to be left out of the squad barring an enforced absence.
Billy Burns has been involved in Irish camps in the past and has been in sparkling form since he signed for Ulster two years. His game management has come on leaps and bounds in those two years and possesses a right boot to keep even the most disciplined of defences honest. Known for his kick-pass assists, we saw Burns kick more for territory in order to pin Cardiff Blues back in tricky conditions.
Shane Daly and James Lowe are the other uncapped players in the Irish squad. Fullback Daly has been playing some great rugby for Munster since rugby resumed and has been jostling with Mike Haley for that red 15 jersey. At 23, Daly may not make much of an impression on his first call up but he certainly has time in his favour. James Lowe qualifies for Ireland on residency, having joined Leinster from the Chiefs in 2017 and has scored 33 tries in 49 appearances for the province.
The residency rule is subject to a lot of discussion and regardless of whether it’s too lenient or not, Lowe’s inclusion will definitely strengthen Ireland.
Is the squad too conservative?
A lot of criticism levelled at Andy Farrell is that his squads have been too conservative and I don’t agree with this. Firstly, Farrell has handed debuts to Hugo Keenan, Ed Byrne, Will Connors, Caelan Doris and Ronan Kelleher, Max Deegan since he took over as Ireland boss. All are under the age of 25 except Byrne.
Farrell isn’t afforded as much time to build a squad as he would be if he was in charge of a club side – they’ve limited matches together and wholesale changes is often more detrimental than beneficial. With the current crop of players he has got, it’s all about getting them familiar with eachother which is a lot more difficult in international rugby.
However I would like to see Farrell give the aforementioned players a run in the side, especially as all with the exception of Max Deegan are included in the panel. Ross Byrne also deserves some minutes – I’d like to see Byrne play a more signficant role within the side in order to see whether he can cut it at this level. I think we’ll be surprised and see that he’s more than an adequate alternative to Sexton at ten.
|Shane Daly||Cork Constitution/Munster||uncapped|
|Keith Earls||Young Munster/Munster||84|
|Chris Farrell||Young Munster/Munster||10|
|Kieran Marmion||Galway Corinthians/Connacht||27|
|Johnny Sexton||St Mary’s College/Leinster||93|
|Ultan Dillane||Galway Corinthians/Connacht||17|
|Peter O’Mahony||Cork Constitution/Munster||69|
|John Ryan||Cork Constitution/Munster||21|
|Josh van der Flier||UCD/Leinster||26|