United Rugby Championship round 7 and our 2024 Six Nations squad…

Time was when the Home Countries Championship, then the 5 Nations, and then the 6 Nations was the be-all and end all of international rugby. It is still the bread and butter of the participating Unions, funding all their other activities. The World Cup has only been with us since the advent of professional rugby and cost the IRFU a net €9 Million this time around. Without the 6 Nations, professional Irish rugby could not survive. 

Now the Captains of England and France have decided to give it a miss. Antoine Dupont in order to facilitate his playing in the Olympic Rugby 7’s tournament, and Owen Farrell citing concerns for the mental wellbeing of himself and his family. With Sexton, Alun Wyn Jones, Stuart Hogg, and many other senior players retiring, and the BBC saying it may not be able to afford to cover it anymore, the tournament is in danger of losing some of its lustre. 

But for most rugby fans, it is still the epitome of elite rugby every season, with many fans travelling to away games at huge expense. There is zero chance of the IRFU taking it anything less than absolutely seriously, all the more so after a disappointing World Cup campaign. New players will be blooded, but only with a view to enhancing the team’s performance and winning the tournament. Experimental and developmental selections are for summer tours and autumn series. The 6 Nations is sacrosanct. 

And so, if previous years are any guide, Andy Farrell will choose an extended squad (including currently injured senior internationals) for a two-day planning and training session over Christmas, followed by the selection of a roughly 38-man squad in mid-January for the opening fixtures against France and Italy in Marseille and Lansdowne Road on the 2nd  and 11th. of February respectively. 

In the meantime, there is still time for players to impress in the URC and European Champions Cup and this weekend, round 7 of the URC again produced some outstanding performances. I don’t think I have ever seen Munster concede 5 mauled tries and still win thanks to some excellent attacking play by their backline. Thomas Ahern playing at 6 was also outstanding and looks to be forcing his way past a crowded field into Farrells 6 Nation squad. 

Ulster again started well with a fine try by Tom Stewart, but despite Kitshoff’s home debut lost most of the key battles along the way and ended up needing a fourth try in the 81st. minute to rescue losing and try bonus points. Having lost the matches after taking 20-3 and 14-0 leads against Connacht and Glasgow respectively, there really seems to be something badly wrong in the Ulster camp. The ruthless edge to press home an advantage simply isn’t there. 

Leinster and Connacht produced an outstanding match at the Sportsground with Leinster only securing the victory and bonus point in the 81st. minute, thanks to an excellent Frawley try. Leinster made 14 changes to their team from their victory against Munster with only Henshaw retained, and really struggled to impose themselves on a fired-up Connacht team. Hansen was excellent on his seasonal debut for the westerners and Caolan Blade and Cian Prendergast had big games. Harry Byrne and Ronan Kelleher had good games for Leinster. 

All four Irish provinces are in the top half of the URC table with Leinster leading and Munster in fourth place. It should make for some interesting matches in the opening round of the European Champions Cup next weekend with Leinster seeking to avenge three consecutive defeats to Champions La Rochelle and Connacht taking on a Bordeaux side featuring the 24 Stone Ben Tameifuna, 6’ 9” Australian Locks Ben Colman and Kane Douglas, and French World Cup stars Mathieu Jalibert, Yoram Moefana, Louis Bielle-Bierrey and Damian Penaud.  

Ulster take on a Bath side currently leading the Premiership and featuring Finn Russell, Joe Cokanasiga, Ollie Lawrence, Cameron Redpath, Will Stuart and Sam Underhill, while Munster take on a Bayonne side including former French stars Maxime Machenaud and Camille Lopez. The rugby club season just got a whole lot more serious, and a lot of players will have an opportunity to show they can perform against test class players. 

With Sexton and Earls having retired, and with Healy (36), Kilcoyne (35), Herring, (33), O‘Mahony (34), and Murray (34) in the twilight of their careers and perhaps ending their international involvement, there could be up to 7 vacancies in the World Cup squad, not to mention issues of form and injury. If 38 players are picked (as opposed to 33 in the world cup squad) that means Farrell could name up to 12 additional players without dropping any of the World Cup squad. 

The focus will be on finding replacements for the retiring players, both short and long term, but sometimes players in other positions simply force their way into consideration by the sheer quality of their performances for their province. So, who, based on form to date, is likely to be in the frame? 

At 10, Crowley is the man in possession with Sexton gone and Ross Byrne possibly injured for the beginning of the 6 Nations. Frawley was in the extended World Cup training squad and so could be next in line, especially after his excellent performance at 10 against Munster. With Carbery also injured the final spot in the squad is likely to be between Harry Byrne and Ireland u.20 star Sam Prendergast.  

On the wing, Stockdale and Baloucoune have been prominent for Ulster with Daly and Nash equally so for Munster. Larmour’s form has improved, so he could be back in the frame. At centre, Farrell will be conscious that Aki (33), McCloskey (31) and Henshaw (30) are not getting any younger and can be injury prone and so will be looking to groom a successor. Osborne and Frawley were in the extended World Cup training squad and will be favourites ahead of Forde, Frisch, and Hume. If Murray is replaced, Caolan Blade must be the favourite with the versatile Doak also a contender. 

Loosehead is probably the most problematic position for Farell with both Healy and Kilcoyne the wrong side of 35. For me, Loughman has yet to prove his test level capabilities, Milne has been injured, and Ulster haven’t shown any great faith in their looseheads by recruiting Kitshoff. Academy prop Jack Boyle could be included as a development player, but it seems far too early to throw him in against France. Farrell may have to fall back on Healy or Kilcoyne until such time as a proven alternative emerges. If Herring is dispensed with, Tom Stewart or Diarmuid Barron seem in pole position to benefit.  

Ryan, Henderson, Beirne and McCarthy seem nailed on at lock so there is room for at most one more. Ryan Baird hasn’t had much game time, so perhaps there is an opening for Ahern who has been outstanding for Munster. Cian Prendergast seems the obvious replacement for O’Mahony in the squad, if not in the first team with Beirne, Conan, and Doris all able to cover 6. Ryan Baird can also play 6 while Max Deegan has excelled there for Leinster. Farrell will have to decide on a specialist 7 back-up for Van Der Flier, and quite a queue has been forming: Hodnett, McCann, Penny, Connors, Oliver, O’Donoghue and Kendellen will all have their supporters but for me Timoney has slipped down the pecking order. 

The squad could thus include a number of uncapped players like Milne, Boyle, Barron, Doak, Sam Prendergast, Osborne, Hodnett, McCann, Penny, Oliver or Kendellen. Other very good players may find their progress blocked by a lot of good players still in possession. Joyce, Sheridan and Edogbo at lock, Oli Jager at tight head, and Coombes at no. 8 come to mind. Still others will breeze in, seemingly out of nowhere, as the players ahead of them in their position retire, get injured, or lose form.  

Selection isn’t always about how good you are. It depends on whether there is a vacancy in the squad in your position and whether you are seen to fit in with the coach’s preferred style of play. The only consistency required is that the coaches think you are the best player to fulfil whatever role they feel needs to be filled. Right now, we badly need a world class loosehead to emerge to replace Healy and Kilcoyne – oh, and the small matter of a world class 10 to replace Sexton. Crowley shows every sign of fulfilling that brief. 

We are well served in most other positions and are arguing about who the back-up players should be in a relatively settled squad. It could be a good time to meet France who tend to have a bit of a clear-out of older players after a world cup. Injuries permitting, I would expect to see only a couple of changes in our starting XV with Sexton replaced by Crowley and O’Mahony replaced by Beirne with Ryan coming into the second row. 

POSSIBLE 6 Nations squad – World Cup squad players in Bold. Players retired, de-selected or ruled out struck out. Possible additions for 6 Nations in Italics. 

  1. Porter, Kilcoyne, Loughman, Healy, Dooley, Milne, Boyle
  2. Sheehan, Kelleher, Herring, Stewart, Barron
  3. Furlong, Bealham, O’Toole, Jager
  4. Ryan, McCarthy, Ahern
  5. Beirne, Henderson
  6. O’Mahony, Baird, Prendergast 
  7. Van der Flier, Hodnett, McCann, Penny
  8. Doris, Conan, Coombes, Deegan
  9. 9. Gibson-Park, Casey, Murray, Blade, Doak
  10. Sexton, Crowley, Ross Byrne, Frawley, Harry Byrne, Prendergast, Carbery
  11. Lowe, Earls, Stockdale, Daly,
  12. Henshaw, Aki, McCloskey
  13. Ringrose, Frisch, Hume
  14. Hansen, Baloucoune, Nash, Larmour
  15. Keenan, O’Brien, Osborne

No doubt some other players will come into contention with a late run in the next few weeks. If we can beat France in Marseille in our first match, we should be in contention to win the title.

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