EVEN AFTER THE withdrawal of the injured Leigh Halfpenny, Wales’ team for tomorrow still includes much more Test match experience than Ireland’s.
Warren Gatland has called on 936 caps worth of nous in his starting XV, which contrasts with Ireland’s total of 566 caps. Gatland is backing that know-how at the top level as he looks for a winning start to his second reign.
However, the scenario is flipped on its head when we look at the benches. The 412 caps shared by Ireland’s replacements are more than double the Welsh total of 195. Andy Farrell has gone for the most experienced option in nearly every case when it comes to his bench.
Rob Herring was always an easy choice for Farrell as his bench hooker once Rónan Kelleher was ruled out through injury. Ulster man Herring has been a consistently good performer for Ireland, bringing a calm head and good basics. He’s excellent at finishing from mauls and while Kelleher and starting hooker Dan Sheehan are punchier athletes, 31-times capped Herring has earned the trust of Farrell and forwards coach Paul O’Connell.
The number 17 shirt stays on Cian Healy’s back despite the recent eye-catching form of Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne. With 121 caps, there really isn’t much that Healy hasn’t seen in international rugby. Farrell knows that Healy can generally be relied on at the scrum. Healy isn’t the most explosive ball-carrier anymore but he can still deliver power at the age of 35.
Healy has also been covering at tighthead prop for Leinster recently and it will be interesting to see if that is relevant tomorrow given that it’s one area where there isn’t experience on the Irish bench. With Tadhg Furlong out injured and Finlay Bealham promoted into the starting XV, Ulster man Tom O’Toole comes onto the matchday 23 for what could be his first Six Nations appearance.
The 24-year-old has only been capped four times so far and while Farrell has long been a fan of O’Toole’s, the Ireland boss’ words yesterday seemed to indicate that he feels it’s time for him to push on as a senior prop now.
“He’s been a project for a while and you get to that stage where you can’t keep chasing potential,” said Farrell.
Munster’s John Ryan has been playing fine rugby and will be back from New Zealand by the time the World Cup rolls around, so he will be in the frame at tighthead. Farrell has also brought the uncapped Munster man Roman Salanoa over to Cardiff as cover this weekend. The Hawaii native is a dynamic athlete and seems to have a high ceiling in terms of further potential.
For now, Ireland may be hoping Bealham can put in a lengthy shift at the Principality Stadium. Farrell always welcomes unexpected challenges as chances to learn about his team but an early injury to Bealham would mean O’Toole being thrown in the deep end. It may be preferable for O’Toole to show his ability with a shorter cameo.
Having Iain Henderson fit as the third lock is important for Farrell. The Ulster captain has had two head injuries in recent months but is ready to feature and his dynamism will be helpful off the bench, as will the impact offered by replacement back row Jack Conan.
There were others who put their hand up for the number 20 shirt, with Munster’s Gavin Coombes playing some of the best rugby of his career since Farrell dropped him last autumn. Coombes’ response has been savage, earning him a recall to the wider group, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him carrying that momentum off the bench in Cardiff.
Similarly, Ryan Baird has stepped up a level with Leinster, meaning Conan has found himself on the bench for his province at times. Having made his only two Test starts in the second row for Ireland, the pacy Baird now appears to be much more in Farrell’s thinking as a blindside flanker.
Conor Murray holds off Craig Casey as scrum-half cover despite Casey recently usurping Murray as Munster’s starter at number nine. Farrell has been pleased with Murray’s performances off the bench for Ireland over the last couple of seasons, highlighting his composure and steady basics. Casey is a tempo-changer and arguably more of a classic ‘impact sub’ but there are more ways of impacting a game than by lifting the tempo.
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There was an interesting call for Farrell to make with his replacement out-half, given that Jack Crowley is one of the coming forces in Irish rugby. The Munster playmaker has to be patient for now, though, as the in-form Ross Byrne provides back-up to Johnny Sexton. Byrne was out in the cold up until last autumn and his match-winning penalty against the Wallabies, but his performances for Leinster have been excellent.
He has continued to be an astute game manager and kicker, but he has also improved his ability to pick defenders apart with his passing and by taking the ball to the line. That’s where Ireland had doubts and Byrne has answered those questions.
Bundee Aki is a high-energy number 23 for Ireland. It’s easy to think that Ireland could have used a more versatile option here. It’s a fair point. Jimmy O’Brien and Jamie Osborne have been in good form, while Jordan Larmour is on the up again too. But Farrell clearly believes he has the options to reshuffle within this matchday 23. Garry Ringrose has played on the wing and Mack Hansen covers fullback.
The Ireland boss also seems to be far more interested in the positives of having Aki available to impact the game. The Connacht man did exactly that – and with a similar lack of game time beforehand – against Australia in November.
Aki will be brimming to prove a point to everyone and Farrell is backing him to channel that in the right way tomorrow. Ireland are still seven-point favourites even after the loss of Furlong, but Farrell will expect the guys wearing numbers 16 to 23 to be crucial.
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