“I don’t see why he is not in Andy Farrell’s plans” - Ireland's back three options for the World Cup
'I think one of those three Ulster lads should be in the World Cup squad'
On Saturday, at Aviva Stadium, Andy Farrell took his seat in the stands to watch the country's two best provinces tear into each other, in the Champions Cup.
Leinster ended up doing what they do every week [barring a share of the spoils with Stormers] and won. They were tested, they had it put up to them but they won.
While the Leinster lads move on, facing Leicester Tigers in Friday's quarter final clash, the Ulster players are now left looking at the United Rugby Championship for their last tilt at silverware. It is also the last chance for many of their players to grab the attention of Andy Farrell and his coaching staff.
The same goes for Munster and Connacht's players. Anyone looking to force their way into Farrell's World Cup plans, ahead of the summer break, now must do it in the URC knock-out stages, if their team makes it that far. Ulster are locked in for that but both Munster and Connacht are by no means guaranteed competitive rugby beyond April 22.
The following players back three players have a closing window of opportunity to impress themselves upon the Ireland coaches - Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, Rob Baloucoune, Mike Lowry, Mike Haley, Shane Daly, Mack Hansen, Calvin Nash. Hansen is a World Cup lock and Earls may travel due to his versatility and experience. We are not forgetting Andrew Conway, who unfortunately had his season obliterated by a knee injury.
In reality, that may leave just one back three slot available, as James Lowe, Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O'Brien are all sure to make the World Cup squad. On House of Rugby [LISTEN from 11:15 below], the panel discussed Ireland's back three options for the tournament, and who might just make the cut.
Andy Farrell and his Ireland back three
For this year's World Cup, the squad selection was increased from 31 to 33 players. Positions like specialist props or either scrum- and out-halves were the ones that often felt the squeeze when coaches only had 31 players to select.
For the 2023 tournament, Ireland are now likely to go for three specialist looseheads and tightheads, with three scrum-halves making the cut. This is how we see it shaking out:
- Loosehead (3), Hooker (3), Tighthead (3), Locks (4), Back Row (5), Scrumhalf (3), Outhalf (3), Centres (4), Back Three (5) - Total: 33
- BACK THREE CERTAINTIES: Mack Hansen, James Lowe, Hugo Keenan
That would leave just two remaining back three slots. Jimmy O'Brien and Keith Earls look to be in pole position, right now, but their versatility means there could. be wiggle room to get in an out-and-out winger or fullback that could feature against the likes of Romania or Tonga. Jordan Larmour is another option, who is better on the wing but can play fullback.
On House of Rugby, Greg O'Shea highlighted the excellent attacking performance of Jacob Stockdale and tossed his name into that World Cup back three debate. "If he can balance up his attack and his defence, and lock them both down," Lindsay Peat mused, "then, yes, Jacob Stockdale should go to the World Cup. Right now, that [his defence] is his Achilles heel."
"It's fair to say that Jacob is an international level winger," added Jason Hennessy. "But we just have to understand that he's a international level winger trying to get into the No.1 team in the world. James Lowe was in [Six Nations] Team of the Championship and Mack Hansen was nominated for Player of the Championship. That's what he is up against."
Who backs up Hugo Keenan?
For Jason Hennessy, the Munster duo of Keith Earls and Andrew Conway - if he can prove his fitness after a long lay-off - would be better selection options that Jacob Stockdale as they have proved they can do well, at Test level, as versatile backline options.
"I think one of that Ulster trio, of Lowry, Stockdale or Baloucoune, should be in that World Cup squad, " said Greg O'Shea. "None of them really put their hands up in that Leinster game, and it was a big game... Andy Farrell was there, watching, and it was such a good opportunity for guys to go, 'I'm going to be in that World Cup squad'. No one from Ulster really did that."
"Calvin Nash had a great game [against Sharks]," Lindsay Peat noted. "He has really just been so consistent since that trip to New Zealand. It's so good to see him going well and getting that game time, which he lacked last season."
In terms of a second fullback in the Ireland squad, it is starting to look as if Jimmy O'Brien then Mack Hansen (in that order) will back up the man who has played the most minutes for Andy Farrell since he took over as Ireland head coach, Hugo Keenan.
If there was wiggle room in the squad, Munster's Mike Haley was put forward as a great option. He has only earned one Test cap to date, in 2019, but is enjoying another fine season for Munster, despite the team's less than ideal 2022/23. Hennessy said:
"A shining light for Munster, against Sharks, was Mike Haley. No matter how badly they play, he is always class. Ye were even talking about it last week - what happens if Hugo Keenan is down? Like, I don't see why Mike is not in Andy Farrell's plans. If there is no Keenan, or if you want to switch things around, he is the outstanding fullback in the country, behind Hugo Keenan."
Peat feels Haley 'deserves a shot in camp' with Andy Farrell's side during the World Cup preparations. O'Shea, though, pointed out that Haley not being called into the Ireland squad in the past 18 months would not bode well for his World Cup chances.
"I think it is going to be Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O'Brien covering that 15 jersey," he stated.
WATCH HOUSE OF RUGBY HERE:
- Mack Hansen deflects Grand Slam praise towards 'Barry' and 'Bogsy'
- Johnny Sexton settles who won training match between senior side and U20s
- Six Ireland stars make outrageously strong Six Nations Team of the Championship '2nd XV'
- Ireland confirm opponents for two World Cup warm-up fixtures
- Johnny Sexton was never going to let Mack Hansen forget his Grand Slam tattoo idea