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12th Feb 2024

Andy Farrell’s biggest injury worry for Wales could yet work out in Ireland’s favour

Patrick McCarry

Hugo Keenan

“We had to do it.”

In his 47 Test matches as head coach of Ireland, Hugo Keenan has played 38 times and started each time.

Andrew Porter has played 38 times for Farrell’s Ireland, too, but only 32 were starts. The only Ireland teammates that come close to Keenan’s usage rate are Josh van der Flier (36) and Peter O’Mahony (34).

Keenan and Tadhg Beirne have been the two players to flourish most under Andy Farrell, with Caelan Doris, James Lowe and Mack Hansen not far behind. Keenan was a late bloomer with Leinster, having had a stint with Ireland Sevens, but he started to play regularly in the 2019/20 season, got his Test chance and never looked back.

Keenan was having another superb Test outing, in the 36-0 win over Italy, when a collision with an Italian player saw him injure his knee. Ireland had the bonus point secured by then, so Farrell played it safe. Jack Crowley dropped back to cover fullback, while Harry Byrne replaced Keenan for his first Test appearance in just under three years.

Following the game, Farrell gave the rest of his squad the all clear, from any serious knocks at least, and offered the early take on Keenan:

“He seems in good spirits but you saw him and he was limping so we’ll see how he turns up [Monday] morning, whether he needs someone to have a look at that or not. I don’t know at this stage.”

For a coaching group that has been über optimistic on the fitness of their players, even when it turns out that they’ve hardly trained or are carrying knocks, this was the closest Farrell has come to admitting Keenan may be sidelined for a bit. As he stated, though, it is early doors and there is a gap weekend in the championship.

Should Farrell be without the services of Hugo Keenan, though, it may not be the worst set-back [we’re writing this on the presumption that any injury will not keep the Dubliner out for a long spell]. If he is out of the Wales game, there are four possible options within the squad itself.

Mack Hansen and Rob Herring are both injured for the 2024 Six Nations, while Hugo Keenan limped off against Italy. (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile)

No other specialist in the squad

Going into the Wales game without Hugo Keenan would slightly diminish Ireland’s chances of victory – given his defensive soundness and all-round consistency – but Andy Farrell would ultimately look upon it as an opportunity for another player.

So far, Jack Crowley and Calvin Nash have slotted in well after the retirement of Johnny Sexton and the shoulder injury sustained by Mack Hansen. Even against Italy, Stuart McCloskey, Finlay Bealham and Ryan Baird all advanced their Test cases after, respectively, Bundee Aki, Tadhg Furlong and Peter O’Mahony were ruled out.

On Sunday, Andy Farrell talked up the performance of Jack Crowley in the 10 jersey but offered a critique on his 24 minutes as fullback. Farrell said:

“Yeah, that [first Ireland score] was an unbelievable try, actually. For Jack to offload the ball, be on the floor, quick ball from Craig, nice feel coming around the corner and then to get back up for a touch, after he had just presented the ball, it was a special try for him.

“I thought he played really well at 10. When he went to 15, he got a little bit wider and a few errors crept crept in there, but we’ll work on that, as well.”

Asked if part of the plan had been to have a look at Crowley in that fullback role, Farrell replied, “We always wanted to give Harry a little bit of time, if possible, but Hugo got injured, so we had to do it.”

For Wales, expect Crowley to revert to the outhalf role. If Keenan were to miss out, the fullback options in the current squad are:

  • Ciarán Frawley
  • Jordan Larmour
  • Jacob Stockdale

Robbie Henshaw has not worn the 15 jersey since a home loss to England in the 2019 Six Nations, while Calvin Nash has one start in that position [this season’s Champions Cup draw at home to Bayonne] in his career. It is not impossible to envisage either in the role but they would be long-shots. Mike Lowry of Ulster appears to be out of the picture and a recall for 33-year-old Simon Zebo also seems unlikely, despite him having a phone call with Farrell, earlier this year.

Hansen and O’Brien would both be considered for the role, if fit, but Frawley would be our favourite if that Wales match were imminent and Keenan was unable to play.

Farrell has spoken highly of Frawley over the past two years and has been impressed with the way he carries himself, and the positivity he brings to each position he is plugged into. The Ireland coach dismissed talk of World Cup cycles, back at the Six Nations launch, and is desperate to win another title – the Grand Slam is bonus territory – before he takes his Lions sabbatical, later this year.

Still, Keenan missing a big championship game when the team is clearly in good form may not be the worst thing in the world.

For his part – having seen Nash come in and fill Hansen’s jersey without a beat being missed – he will be desperate to continue in his go-to guy role for the Ireland head coach.

HOUSE OF RUGBY, WITH JAMES DOWNEY & LINDSAY PEAT

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