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Farrell faces hard choices

European failure leaves Irish boss with selection headaches

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James Ryan is working his way back to peak fitness. Photo: Sportsfile

James Ryan is working his way back to peak fitness. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

James Ryan is working his way back to peak fitness. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomorrow marks a month to the day when, all going well, Ireland will resume their Six Nations campaign by welcoming Italy to Dublin.

After the deluge of rugby over the last five weeks, it's a long time to wait for a game of real importance.

Leinster and Ulster's Champions Cup quarter-final defeats came as another wake-up call concerning Irish teams' struggles against bigger opposition.

Andy Farrell's main challenge now is to devise a more sophisticated game-plan that is good enough to outsmart more powerful teams.

It will be fascinating to see how the Ireland boss goes about that, but with several players some way off their best, places should be up for grabs for what is a busy autumn schedule.

Here, we take a look at the selection headaches facing Farrell as international rugby looms large once again . . .

Back-three

What was once a major strength with Rob Kearney in situ, full-back is now a real area of concern for Ireland.

Jordan Larmour's aerial struggles are obvious, and while Jacob Stockdale looked like a potential option at 15, his poor performance on the wing last weekend again highlighted his defensive frailties.

Going on form alone, Munster's Shane Daly has arguably been the most impressive Irish full-back since rugby's return, but given he has never been in international camp, he has some ground to make up.

We have made this point in the past, but Ireland and Munster missed a trick by not considering Andrew Conway at full-back, while Will Addison's injury problems continue to deny Farrell a viable contender.

As it is, Conway is the form winger and his place looks safe. Keith Earls is right in the mix, while Dave Kearney, who is working his way back to full fitness, and the uncapped duo Hugo Keenan and James Lowe, who becomes eligible in early November, will look to force their way in.

Centre

Garry Ringrose is growing as a leader and although he had a quiet game against Saracens, he remains one of the first names on the team-sheet.

Robbie Henshaw knows Ringrose inside-out, but Bundee Aki was in sensational form for Connacht and is in great nick. Ireland desperately need Aki's physicality. Chris Farrell also looked sharp for Munster, while Stuart McCloskey is further back in the queue.

Half-back

Conor Murray's iffy box-kicking came in for plenty of criticism for his performance in the defeat to Leinster, but in his defence, the scrum-half looked to be carrying out an instructed game-plan.

The lockdown seemed to impact John Cooney more than any other Irish player as he lost his place in the Ulster team for the PRO14 final. Cooney had been expected to start the Italy game in March, yet the scrum-half debate now looks to be as up in the air as ever.

Luke McGrath's sloppy performance against Saracens could prove very costly, while Jamison Gibson-Park, who is now Irish-qualified, further enhanced his reputation.

Craig Casey will push Murray in Munster, as Connacht pair Kieran Marmion and Caolin Blade aim to catch Farrell's eye.

Joey Carbery's injury woes continue to lessen the out-half debate. Ross Byrne is growing in stature, while Jack Carty has shown signs of improvement, but Johnny Sexton remains the best 10 in the country.

Front-row

Leinster and Ireland's reliance on Tadhg Furlong was reiterated by last weekend's scrum problems.

Andrew Porter had a tough afternoon, while Cian Healy looked a shadow of his former self.

Dave Kilcoyne is not yet fully fit, which is a reminder that the loosehead stocks are not what they once were.

Young Ulster props Eric O'Sullivan and Tom O'Toole's development has been promising, with the latter in line to be capped this year.

Meanwhile, Marty Moore and Jack McGrath are still struggling to recapture their best form. Hooker is also a bit of a worry as Leinster saw fit to drop Rónan Kelleher for the biggest game of the season.

In hindsight, it was the wrong decision and while Kelleher has had lineout issues, he is the incumbent hooker for both club and country - as much as Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan will have something to say about that.

Second-row

James Ryan is an automatic starter, and is still working his way back to the peak of his powers following a serious shoulder injury.

Iain Henderson is in a similar boat, but if he is to partner Ryan, then Farrell needs to see more consistent form from the Ulster lock.

Tadhg Beirne remains a viable option, particularly against a mobile pack, while Devin Toner must quickly find his feet again, as must Ultan Dillane, Jean Kleyn and Quinn Roux.

Ryan Baird is the coming man and having been named as a development player in the Six Nations squad, the 21-year-old is set to wear the green jersey for the first time in the coming months.

Back-row

Dan Leavy's return cannot come soon enough and hopefully the Leinster flanker gets a chance to do so with the 'A' team on Friday night.

Caelan Doris has now emerged as a genuine Irish starter and looks primed for Test rugby. Peter O'Mahony's starting place is no longer guaranteed, especially not if Farrell looks at Doris as a six - as Leinster have done in recent games.

Jack Conan missed a trick last weekend, so CJ Stander's ballast remains as important as ever.

Max Deegan has fallen down the Leinster pecking order, but Will Connors will almost certainly win his first cap on the back of his fine form, while Josh van der Flier will also be in the mix.

Jack O'Donoghue is bursting with undoubted potential, but will have been annoyed with his display in the Leinster defeat.

All in all, very few players should be certain of their place in the Ireland team, as Farrell faces more questions than answers ahead of the Six Nations.