Absence of Tadhg Furlong is monumental, but it's exactly the test Ireland need
This is what so many Irish rugby supporters and pundits have been pining for.
Tadhg Furlong is OUT and the roof will be CLOSED.
That's the long story made short. Ireland were heading to Cardiff with World No.1 swagger but life in rugby has a way of slinging several curveballs at once.
For the pessimistic out there, Ireland are now going into the game without the world-class Tadhg Furlong and the world-class Robbie Henshaw. They have Johnny Sexton and James Lowe in from the start after what will be, for both men, over a month without a game. Wales also have Warren Gatland at the helm and will be playing a rough-and-tumble, back to basics style. Warrenball 1.0 (no need to update). And the roof will be closed so the atmosphere will be heightened and the anthem will shake our souls.
But, then, is this not exactly what so many in Ireland were asking for? This is a World Cup year, after all, and Ireland need to blood other players just in case star men drop before or during the big dance.
For all our brave talk, in the past few weeks and years, we have all know there are two people we would much, much, much prefer to be in our starting XV - Tadhg Furlong and Johnny Sexton. Any Ireland team without those lads in there just looks naked without them.
We have heard since we beat the All Blacks, last summer, how Ireland should use the Six Nations to blood the fringe players and back-ups. Some of us would prefer if we went all-out to win our big games with the best players available while others are even more extreme and want the Six Nations sacrificed to shove all our chips behind the quest to get beyond a World Cup last eight. For those people, Saturday is time to take a dose of that syrupy medicine.
On the latest House of Rugby, [LISTEN from 32:20 below], Greg O'Shea, Lindsay Peat and Jason Hennessy looked ahead to the Six Nations opener against Wales, and only one of that trio was speaking with much confidence about Ireland leaving Cardiff with the win.
Six Nations life without Tadhg Furlong at tighthead
Looking back on the Ireland team announcement now, hours after the event, the IRFU played a blinder on it.
Andy Farrell was up for press duties at the Six Nations launch, last Monday, but was not up again until after his match-day squad for Wales was named. No fitness/injury updates were circulated from when the squad arrived in Portugal, last week, until today.
In all the predicted and expected teams, Tadhg Furlong was there at tighthead, even though he had not played a minute for Leinster since December 3. We were guilty of it ourselves. A lot of focus was on Bundee Aki or Stuart McCloskey in midfield, if James Lowe would feature and who would back up Johnny Sexton after the captain declared himself 'good to go'.
Perhaps the prospect of Furlong missing out on such a big game was too scary to contemplate. He has been a beast (in the best sense of the word) since he helped rock the All Blacks at Soldier Field, back in 2016.
Finlay Bealham is the next man up. He has performed well off the bench for Ireland but has only five starts in Test rugby. One of those starts was at loosehead and he last wore the Ireland No.3 jersey in July 2021. The only consolation, for those that are fretting, is that we will see what Bealham is all about now, rather than waiting for a win-or-go-home World Cup encounter. Same for Tom O'Toole, who is tighthead back-up for the game.
Andrew Porter is starting and in top form, on the other side of that front row, so we still have that explosive, ball-playing prop option and Bealham's handling and passing has come on in the past few seasons.
Andy Farrell assured us all, today, that Tadhg Furlong 'will keep working away to hopefully be fit for the French game'. We will believe that when we see it.
Elsewhere in the Ireland match-day squad, the only eyebrow raises are on the replacements bench. Farrell is going for the perceived safer options of Iain Henderson, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne and Bundee Aki when he could have just have easily selected Ryan Baird, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley and Jimmy O'Brien.
Byrne has jumped from 5th choice outhalf option to backing up Sexton again. Most of us that watch a lot of Leinster would like that Ross Byrne to show up more often for Ireland.
The 27-year-old took a lot from his match-winning kick against Australia, last November. Let's hope he builds on it... if Sexton allows him any minutes!
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