ireland v italy Farrell backs his four Leinster debutants to seize their opportunity against Italy
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has backed his four Leinster debutants to seize their opportunity in Saturday’s Six Nations clash against Italy.
Will Connors and Hugo Keenan have been rewarded for their excellent form with starts, while their provincial team-mates Ed Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park are in line for their first international appearances from the bench.
Farrell insisted that he was in no doubt that Connors and Keenan in particular were ready to make the significant step up.
“We do, definitely,” the Ireland boss said, via an online press conference this afternoon.
“Obviously we’ve had a few days together to see how they would fit into the system etc and the pressures of international rugby, being able to adapt to new calls and new teammates and everything else.
“Will has obviously been involved with us before and he has been chomping at the bit for a while. He had a seven-month break to think about that and he has come back in pretty good form so we are excited about seeing him.
“Hugo has had a great start after lockdown. He is an exciting player that can play in a variety of ways so they are both ready to go.”
Byrne will provide cover for Cian Healy at loosehead and is set to cap a remarkable personal journey on which the Carlow native has had to battle back from a couple of very serious injuries.
Gibson-Park, meanwhile, became Irish-qualified last year, and Farrell is a keen admirer of the Kiwi scrum-half.
“It has been seamless for both of them,” Farrell continued.
“Ed is certainly a student of the game. He is very knowledgeable. It has been seamless for him coming in.
“Jamison, we all know by watching him play that he is a calming influence. He definitely is that to the team. He will add a different dimension when he comes off the bench. Certainly both of them will.”
Farrell has resisted the temptation to start Keenan at full-back as the rookie is named on the wing, which paves the way for Jacob Stockdale to stake his claim in the number 15 jersey.
The Ulster man has endured a difficult spell, but Farrell has full faith in Stockdale delivering at full-back for Ireland.
“We’ve had quite a few sessions under our belt now so we have looked at different combinations and we’ve been very impressed with Jacob,” he explained. He is learning the trade pretty quickly in the back field. He is learning to adapt and get stronger there. We think he has all the attributes to push forward in that position and there will be elements of his game we need to keep pushing forward.
“What you don’t see on the wing with Jacob from time to time is his skill level. He has got great vision, and he has great hands as well.”
Josh van der Flier was the unlucky one to miss out in what is a ferociously competitive back-row, with Connors getting the nod to start, while Peter O’Mahony is on the bench.
Farrell was keen to stress that it was through no fault of his own that Van der Flier is dropped.
Farrell said: “We think Josh is a great player and he always has been for us. We think Will adds a little bit of mobility to our back-row and obviously defence is a big part of the game.”
Bundee Aki is preferred to Robbie Henshaw, who has to make do with a place on the bench, with Farrell adding: “It’s unbelievably tough. All five of the centres always seem to be fit which is a great place to be. .
Connacht lock Quinn Roux misses out this weekend with a shoulder injury, while Ronan Kelleher, who is due back next week, is still nursing a quad problem.
Ireland team to face Italy: J Stockdale; A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki, H Keenan; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, A Porter; T Beirne, James Ryan; C Doris, W Connors, CJ Stander. Reps: D Heffernan, E Byrne, F Bealham, U Dillane, P O’Mahony, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R Henshaw