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14th Mar 2023

Three ruthless calls Ireland may take to clinch Grand Slam against England

Patrick McCarry

Hugo Keenan

“Front row is front row in my opinion… at the end of the day you just have to hit and push and strike.”

If the IRFU were looking to douse the Grand Slam fervour that is growing in Ireland, they did well to select Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy for Tuesday media duties.

Mack Hansen may have lobbed a giant sod of turf on the fire by saying ‘everybody hates England, in general’ but the two Leinster and Ireland props were sent out to give it their best act of job-focused nonchalance. Yeah, they admitted, there is a Grand Slam to be won but there is also a stung and humbled English side coming to Dublin with plenty to play for.

“We’ve won nothing yet,” Furlong cautioned any in the media that was getting excited and fast-forwarding through 80+ minutes and a trophy lift. Sure enough, defeat to England could yet cost Ireland a Triple Crown, Six Nations championship and a Grand Slam.

Ireland will stage their only big crack training session on Thursday morning, before Andy Farrell names his starting XV to face England. On RugbyJOE’s Six Nations Corner, three of Farrell’s most crucial team selection calls were discussed, and thrashed out.

Tadhg Furlong

Tough decision at hooker

Crucially, Andy Farrell has opted to keep both Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan in camp for the week of the England game, despite both men going off injured in the win over Scotland. Tom Stewart has been brought in as extra cover at hooker but both men are being given every opportunity to prove their fitness.

Ultimately, though, it would be a giant risk to go into a game against a decent England front row – and any lineout unit that features Maro Itoje – with two dinged up hookers (both with shoulder issues). The observations on Sheehan are more optimistic so we’d start him (if he gets that medical all-clear) and back him up with Rob Herring. Get Tom Stewart in as 24th man, too, as he may be called upon any time before kick-off.

Bringing JGP back in

Conor Murray was excellent against Wales, had his moments against France (commendably playing after his father’s unfortunate injury) and was steady against Scotland. Jamison Gibson-Park is the lad England will not want to see starting, and you could tell why after his rapid-fire sub role against the Scots.

Murray has proven he can play that quicker tempo game and he has proven he can mix it with the best again, in a starting role. Gibson-Park is our first-choice nine heading towards the World Cup, we feel, so reunite him with Johnny Sexton and let’s tear into England from the off.

No.23 must be versatile

Tadhg Furlong

This was one that Jason Hennessey talked me into, but without much of a (verbal) arm twist. It looks odds-on that Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw will wear 12 and 13 against England, after Garry Ringrose was ruled out of the finalé. That leaves the No.23 vacant.

I previously argued for Stuart McCloskey in that role but Hennessey pointed out that selecting the Ulsterman would essentially leave Ireland with three players that prefer that inside centre position. Should the injury blight spread further into the backline, we want versatility on the bench. Step forward the surprise success of the November Tests, Jimmy O’Brien.

In the end, this was the team that myself and Jason Hennessey settled on, in our Six Nations Corner discussion, with the three ruthless calls marked in bold.


15. Hugo Keenan
14. Mack Hansen
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Bundee Aki
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Andrew Porter
2. Dan Sheehan
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Ryan Baird
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Caelan Doris

Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien.

Other calls, you will note, are Ryan Baird and Robbie Henshaw starting and Kieran Treadwell coming on to the bench.

There have been disruptions in each round but the positives are Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park, Henshaw, Cian Healy and Sexton all getting a stringent test against the Scots. It bodes well, but England will still take some beating.


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