Ireland have big issues at lock and prop while exiles rule still grates
Wouldn't it be just great if the national rugby team could put a smile on everybody's face by beating Italy in our first rearranged Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday.
That is, of course, presuming the match goes ahead. There are still six days to go to the game and, in the world we live in, that is an eternity.
Hopefully it will and hopefully Ireland can win the match, with a bonus-point for scoring four tries and keep ourselves in the running for the title.
Then we would go to Paris on Saturday week with a chance to win it all ourselves - and with a chance to mess up France's championship dream.
For coach Andy Farrell, this is going to be a hard week on the training ground as he tries to put together a team.
Yes, we'll beat Italy, but I suspect Farrell will have one eye on putting together a crew that can really put it up to France.
Full-back Jordan Larmour, winger Keith Earls, prop Tadhg Furlong and two second rows, Iain Henderson and Ryan Baird, will miss the match.
Of the quintet, Furlong is by far the biggest loss.
If you didn't know just how much the New Ross man mattered to Irish rugby, look at the way the Leinster scrum was demolished by Saracens in the Heineken Cup last month without Furlong.
Whatever else they are short of in international rugby, the Italians do like a good battle in the scrum and they will put it up to Ireland, and I suspect scrummaging power, as much as line-out ability, will be behind his call on the replacement for Henderson and Baird in the second row.
Let me make two points about that. I'm really disappointed Baird will miss out on a probable first Ireland senior cap next Saturday.
The Louth man has all the class of James Ryan, but with an extra, abrasive, physical edge.
Thank God, Baird's injury is only short-term and he should be back for the matches in November.
My other point is that one of the very best Irish second rows was playing in yesterday's Heineken Cup final.
Donnacha Ryan is playing out of his skin for Racing 92. And we're ignoring him.
At the risk of repeating myself in these pages, trying to pick a successful Irish team from just the four provinces is like competing with a hand tied behind our back.
I know, the IRFU want to guard against our players being burnt out. But nobody can tell me that Donnacha and club-mate Simon Zebo should not be playing for Ireland next Saturday on form. They are not playing because of where they play their club rugby.
Speaking of Zebo, I'll be very interested to see what Andy Farrell does in the back three.
Two of his first-choice trio, Larmour and Earls, are injured and Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale is going through a hard time, having played poorly for Ulster against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup.
I suspect Farrell will go with Stockdale and hope he finds his mojo against the Italians and comes back strong a week later. Because we can't go into the French match with doubts about Stockdale's form.
If we're down two second rows for Saturday, Ireland are overloaded with centres, with Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell all looking to play.
I suspect the coach will make the best of a bad lot by pairing Aki and Ringrose in the middle and moving Henshaw to full back.
He could try Munster's Shane Daly at full-back.
But if the coach is looking to Paris next week, I wouldn't be lobbing Shane in there for just his second international - even without a crowd in the Stade de France.
Hopefully too, Craig Casey might see a bit of action at scrum-half, subbing in for Conor Murray.
Casey is a real prospect for the future. And it is good to see him getting used to life in the Irish camp.
The other real selection quandary is the back row.
Josh van der Flier will be at seven and then it is which pair of Peter O'Mahony, Caelan Doris and CJ Stander will get the nod.
The selection is complicated by the fact Doris and Stander can both play at six or eight.
Farrell might be leaning towards choosing Doris and Stander, but leaving O'Mahony out weakens our line-out straight away. Does he dare take that risk when we are down two second-rows?
It won't matter next Saturday, but it might matter, big time on Saturday week against France.
Donnacha Ryan is playing out of his skin at Racing 92. And we're ignoring him.
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