The dust has only settled on Ireland’s autumn campaign but thoughts are already turning to next year’s Six Nations and what Andy Farrell’s starting side will be when they travel to Cardiff in 10 weeks’ time.
Farrell has plenty of food for thought from Ireland’s wins over South Africa, Fiji and Australia. The head coach handed out five debuts across the three Tests and tried new combinations, while also rewarding players who started the season in fine form for their provinces.
Some justified their selection, some didn’t, and with others due to return from injury, Farrell has some big calls to make as Ireland attempt to start a Rugby World Cup year in style by winning a Six Nations title.
The full-back position is Hugo Keenan’s to lose. The South Africa game was his first of the season yet he hit the ground running with another rock-solid display.
The versatile Jimmy O’Brien threw his name into the hat as cover for Keenan with an assured performance against Fiji, with his left boot proving a useful weapon across the month.
The wing positions are less clear cut. Mack Hansen started all three November Tests and scored two tries but his performances dipped against Fiji and Australia. Robert Baloucoune was forced to live off scraps in his two appearances while O’Brien’s stint on the wing against the Wallabies was the least impressive of his three outings.
James Lowe, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls missed out through injury while Jacob Stockdale had to settle for a sole outing with Ireland A. Should that quartet rediscover fitness and form, Farrell will be spoilt for choice.
Stuart McCloskey received the international recognition his Ulster form warranted and the center certainly made an impact against South Africa prior to his untimely withdrawal due to injury. One of only five players to start all three Tests, his outings against Fiji and Australia were solid but less spectacular.
That same cannot be said for Garry Ringrose, who is the best form of his career and has become one of the first names on Farrell’s teamsheet. The Leinster man’s versatility is a huge asset, having seamlessly slotted in on the wing and at inside center this season.
Robbie Henshaw’s hamstring limited him to five minutes of action this autumn while Bundee Aki made a try-scoring impact against Australia on his return from suspension.
Farrell now has four top-quality centers to pick from, with the likes of James Hume also pushing hard for selection.
Ringrose and Henshaw is the likely first-choice partnership but there has not been much continuity of selection in recent years due to the high volume of injuries, and the teak-tough Aki is often the beneficiary.
Out-half options beyond Johnny Sexton remains a longstanding issue for Ireland but the pecking order at 10 may have altered in recent weeks.
Joey Carbery was handed a start against Fiji, only to have his autumn ended by Albert Tuisue’s terrible head-high tackle. Ciarán Frawley looked to be the next in line but he suffered a knee injury that required surgery while playing for Ireland A.
That handed an opportunity to Jack Crowley, who made his debut off the bench against Fiji and was then given the No 10 shirt at late notice for Australia when Sexton was ruled out. The 22-year-old stepped in impressively and it will be interesting to see how much game time he gets at Munster, where he is competing with Carbery and Ben Healy.
Ross Byrne shouldn’t be discounted either. He showed nerves of steel to slot that difficult late penalty against Australia and his form of him for Leinster in Sexton’s absence is often overlooked.
Ireland also had injury problems at scrum-half with Conor Murray suffering an series-ending groin injury against South Africa.
Jamison Gibson-Park’s impact on his return from injury shows why he is Ireland’s first-choice No 9 but Craig Casey has made a strong case to become his regular back-up. The 23-year-old injected tempo into Ireland’s attacking game when he sprung from the bench.
Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong are the established starting trio, although Rónan Kelleher will provide strong competition at hooker should he put his injury problems behind him.
Finlay Bealham is second-choice tighthead while the evergreen Cian Healy provided impact from the bench in all three November Tests, but Jeremy Loughman – who made his debut against Fiji – and Dave Kilcoyne could challenge him for the role of back-up loosehead.
Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan picked up where they left off in New Zealand. The pair provide solidity at lineout time while Beirne is a constant breakdown threat and Ryan excellent in both defensive and attacking mauls.
Had Iain Henderson proved his fitness it could have given Farrell a selection quandary, while injury also prevented him from seeing more of Joe McCarthy. Kieran Treadwell again made an impact off the bench against South Africa and deserved his start against Fiji. Farrell clearly likes what he sees from the Ulster lock.
Beirne and Ryan are likely to continue their partnership in Cardiff unless Henderson can string a run of games together during the busy block of interpros and Champions Cup ties.
The No 7 shirt belongs to world player of the year Josh van der Flier for the foreseeable future while Caelan Doris has started 23 of Farrell’s 30 games in charge, whether at blindside or No 8.
Doris and Peter O’Mahony’s performances are keeping Jack Conan out of the run-out side but as mentioned above, a fit and firing Henderson would allow Farrell to shake his back row up and potentially move Beirne to No 6.
Farrell has an embarrassment of riches here, with Gavin Coombes, Max Deegan, Cian Prendergast and Nick Timoney just four of a number of players knocking on the door.
Predicted Ireland XV v Wales: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Tadhg Beirne, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.