Champions Cup round 3 and Ireland 2024 6 Nations squad selection…

The Franco-Irish Champion’s cup head to heads ended up 2-2 after some good matches between eight teams playing some champagne rugby. It was a great prelude to the main symphony, France vs. Ireland, in Marseilles on 2nd.February.

Lyon 34 Connacht 20

Lyon, helped by Paddy Jackson, were too strong for a Connacht side without Aki, Hansen, Bealham. O’Halloran and Blade. However, Connacht came to play and scored two excellent tries by Jansen and Prendergast at the beginning and end of the first half, to sandwich two excellent efforts by Lyon who were speedy and inventive in attack. Connacht were committed in defence but could not match Lyon in the scrums and conceded a lot of territory to penalties. However, the 20-10 half-time scoreline reflected the fact that Paddy Jackson was converting his penalties and conversions, while Connacht couldn’t.

Connacht stayed in the match almost to the death, scoring an excellent mauled try to make it 20-17. But another cross-kick went awry, and a crucial pass didn’t stick, and Lyon sucker punched them by scoring their bonus point try in the end. But this was no hiding, unlike Connacht’s first two Champions Cup matches. A place in the Challenge Cup, if they can beat Bristol at home next Friday is the best they can realistically hope for now.

Toulon 18 Munster 29

Cometh the hour, cometh the man – and the team. Down to bare bones, especially in the second row and at prop, Munster produced quite possibly their best performance of the season to keep their Champion’s Cup hopes alive. With Ireland losing two world cup wingers to injury, Munster produced three possible replacements – Nash for the right wing, and Zebo for the left. The only question is whether Zebo (33) still has the legs to last 80 minutes, but his ability to cover 15 is another plus.

And the third candidate? Ahern had another stormer shoring up the Munster pack but does most of his best work on the wing – scoring a try and almost creating another. He played full back as a schoolboy before he grew to 6’9” and was consigned to the pack… A useful player to have around when World Cup winning locks Jean Kleyn and RG Snyman are out injured.

Elsewhere Crowley recovered from four early mistakes to create two tries and take the man of the match award. Most of his mistakes seem to come from trying too hard. If he can get the basics right the rest will come. Tadgh Beirne, Gavin Combes, John Hodnett, Alex Nankivell, and John Ryan also had big games, and O’Mahony contributed a useful 65 minutes after a long injury lay-off. Munster are now back in a qualifying position, even with a home draw, if they can beat pool leaders, Northampton, in Thomond Park next Saturday.

Leinster 43 Stade Francais 7

James Lowe returned from his post World Cup sabbatical, and it was as if he had never been away – scoring a try, making some line breaks, and making those booming clearances with his left boot. Leinster’s line-out continues to wobble – until Ryan came on in the second half – but I suppose neither McCarthy nor Jenkins can be classed as line-outs specialists. It is an affliction which has beset all Irish teams during and since the World Cup.

There were plenty of good performances throughout the Leinster team, but it is difficult to judge the overall merit of the performance against a sub-par Stade Francais side. Further improvement will be required when they face Leicester at Welford Road next Saturday, although Leicester could be tired after a 45-12 hammering by La Rochelle today, despite La Rochelle shipping three yellow cards.

Ulster 24 Toulouse 48

Ulster learned the hard way what playing against a top team in full flow can be like. Antoine Dupont gave a world class display which made almost everyone else look second rate. Ulster were overpowered up front and outrun and out thought almost everywhere else with Toulouse running in 7 tries. In fairness to Ulster, they never gave up and just missed out on a try bonus point by scoring three tries of their own. Tom Stewart and perhaps Timoney may have been the only players to enhance their chances of selection by Ireland. Ulster are still in a qualifying position but face a difficult match against Harlequins away next Saturday.

Ireland 2024 6 Nations squad selection

Farrell is due to announce his 6 Nations squad next week and there is quite a lot of competition in some positions. Of the four wingers Ireland brought to the world cup, Earls has retired, Hansen and O’Brien are injured for the 6 Nations, and Lowe has played just one match since. Stockdale is the obvious alternative for the left wing, but Zebo has been in fine form. Is he too old at 33 and can he last the full 80 minutes? His ability to cover 15 is an added plus.

Nash has also been in fine form on the right wing and is the front-runner to replace Hansen with Larmour and Tommy O’Brien also in with a shout. For me Baloucoune lacks physicality and is too peripheral a figure out on the wing. Farrell likes his wings to get involved in the game more. Alternatively, Farrell could play Ringrose on the wing, to accommodate both Aki and Henshaw in the centre. If Ireland go for a 6:2 bench split (with Frawley covering 10, 12 and 15) Ringrose could well end up on the wing anyway.

Up front, we are down to Porter and Healy at loose head, with Kilcoyne injured, but are not stuck for options in the second and back rows. McCarthy has come on strongly since the world cup and Ahern and Prendergast are knocking on the selector’s door. Let’s hope Furlong rediscovers his best form.

Crowley is leading the charge for the 10 position with Ross and Harry Byrne injured. Frawley might make the bench to cover 10, 12, and 15, and Prendergast might make it as a development player. But we are down to bare bones in the position which might leave an opening for Burns or JJ Hanrahan if Harry Byrne doesn’t recover.

Peter O’Mahony has been an outstanding servant of Irish rugby, always worth his place in a very competitive Irish back row, and a key member of the leadership team. Some of the newspapers have been speculating he could be the next Ireland Captain as successor to Sexton.

Perhaps such speculation is based on informed inside information, or perhaps it is just that – media speculation. I don’t find it very convincing. It’s one of those personal calls where a deep conversation will have been had between Farrell and O’Mahony. Can he really play up to his past standards again? There has been little sign of it since the world cup, although admittedly he has been injured a lot.

If Farrell were stuck for a six he would doubtless try to persuade O’Mahony to give it another go – for his leadership qualities as much as anything else. But Farrell has Beirne, Baird, Doris, Cian Prendergast, Ahern, and Deegan all playing well at 6. It makes no sense to try and resuscitate a 34-year old’s career one more time in that context. Let O’Mahony concentrate on helping Munster through their current injury crisis instead.

Against France Farrell could go for the experienced Beirne at 6 with Ryan, Henderson, McCarthy, and Baird providing adequate cover for 4,5 and 6, and with Van De Flier and Doris at 7 and 8 and Conan providing cover. Teams don’t get to be much better stacked for talent in those positions than that. A third lock in the pack will also help our props against the French giants in scrums and mauls.

Against Italy, at home, 9 days later, and no doubt after a bruising encounter against France, Farrell would then have the luxury of playing players like Prendergast and Ahern at 6 – they have been tearing up trees this season and represent the future for Ireland for the next world cup.

I still think meeting France first up (even in Marseilles) gives us a rare chance of catching them cold and going on to win the 6 Nations. Half the potential England squad seem to be playing in or heading for France next season and their club form has suffered, giving us a better chance at Twickenham.

Of course, the beauty of the 6 Nations is its unpredictability. I wouldn’t take even our home matches for granted and Scotland will always be a threat. But if we can avoid more serious injuries we could be in with a great chance.

***

Possible (37 Man) 6 Nations Squad

(World cup squad members in Bold, probable additions in normal type face, fringe possibilities in italics, Injured/retired players (in brackets)

1. Porter, (Kilcoyne), Loughman, Healy, Dooley, Milne, James Cronin?

2. Sheehan, Kelleher, (Herring), Stewart, Barron

3. Furlong, Bealham, O’Toole, Jager, Ryan

4. Ryan, McCarthy,

5. Beirne, Henderson, Ahern

6. O’Mahony, Baird, Prendergast

7. Van der Flier, Hodnett, Connors, Timoney, Penny

8. Doris, Conan, Coombes, Deegan

9. Gibson-Park, Casey, Murray, Blade, Doak

10. (Sexton), Crowley, (Ross Byrne) Frawley, Harry Byrne, Prendergast

11. Lowe, (Earls), Stockdale, Zebo

12. Henshaw, Aki, McCloskey

13. Ringrose, Frisch, Hume

14. (Hansen), Nash, Larmour, Baloucoune

15. Keenan, (O’Brien), Osborne

That would be 7 members of the World Cup squad retired/injured and 11 additions bringing the squad up to 37 players. If Farrell goes for a slightly more rapid transition and radical approach, he might replace Murray (34) with Blade, and not select O’Mahony because of his age (34) and the wealth of alternatives on offer. The selection of Connors ahead of Hodnett would be controversial in the highly competitive seven position, as his body of work is much less. It all depends on what style of player Farrell is looking for. Bernard Jackman has said that players like Hodnett and Penny are two small for international rugby, but they are no smaller than Van Der Flier, who hasn’t done too badly.

If Farrell wants to include another uncapped player, Osborne might get the nod (if fit| as he was a member of the extended World Cup squad. Farrell sometimes picks development players not to select them immediately, but to accelerate their development. Sam Prendergast, Jack Boyle, Edwin Edogbo, David McCann, or Cathal Forde might come into that category. Overall, the name of the game in Irish rugby is evolution rather than revolution. Farrell might retain some old heads for the France game and bring in more new talent as the 6 Nation progresses. A good start against France, and a back-to-back Grand Slam for the first time in our history is a distinct possibility.

 


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