Six Nations 2020: Change in the air as Andy Farrell's Ireland go again against Italy

By Michael MorrowBBC Sport NI
Farrell
Andy Farrell's first Six Nations as Ireland head coach was suspended after three games in February
Guinness Six Nations: Ireland v Italy
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday, 24 October Kick-off: 15:30 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and BBC Radio Ulster; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app; watch highlights online.

Ireland's three-game Six Nations campaign of February 2020 feels like a long time ago.

Eight months on we resume the tournament in what are sadly, but temporarily, environments not associated with the northern hemisphere's greatest rugby carnival.

Amid the madness, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell selected a squad as he continues to put his own stamp on a team that is increasingly becoming notably different from that of the Joe Schmidt era, both in terms of personnel and playing style.

With a Lions tour on the horizon and a Six Nations title still there to be won, the stakes to perform remain high.

Here are a few areas to look out for as the most peculiar Six Nations championship begins again in Dublin on Saturday.

Back-row battle begins

Those who watched the Pro14 final between Leinster and Ulster will know that Josh van der Flier's absence from the squad to face Italy is not down to a loss of form.

Van der Flier remains a high-class operator and will win plenty more international caps, but nailing down a regular place in the back row is arguably now the most difficult task in Irish rugby.

Indeed, the same can be said for Leinster. The Pro14 champions have an embarrassment of riches at the back of their scrum, a depth-chart so impressive it begs the question how all their talent will receive adequate game-time in years to come.

Will Connors, who is fast becoming synonymous with the chop-tackle, will make his Ireland debut alongside 22-year-old Caelan Doris whose own debut against Wales in February was cut short after only five minutes, although he did have time to make one impressive turnover before going off.

Leinster back rows
Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan and Will Connors are among Leinster and Ireland's impressive back row options

About a kilometre down the road from the Aviva Stadium another significant appearance will be made this weekend as Dan Leavy returns for Leinster, 19 months on from a horrendous knee injury.

Prior to the injury, Leavy had asserted himself as an undroppable presence in Ireland's back-row and while his reintroduction will take some time, he remains a major asset when fit.

The injured Max Deegan will want his say upon return as well, while Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock have plenty left to offer.

That's just the Leinster contingent, as CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony would be quick to remind us.

Doris and Connors have their chance to shine this weekend and with such rich pickings for Farrell to choose from, opportunities to make a mark cannot be passed up.

Keenan and Lowe arrive as Stockdale takes on new role

As far as anything in international rugby is a certainty, James Lowe's arrival into the Ireland squad has been assumed as a given for several years now.

The Leinster wing is just over a week away from reaching the three-year residency threshold and, as his presence among the Six Nations squad suggests, he will make his international bow in next month's Autumn Nations Cup.

Less obvious was the rapid ascent of Hugo Keenan, whose form since the restart in August has made him impossible to ignore.

To say Keenan has risen from nowhere would be untrue, the Dubliner was a member of the under-20 side that reached the World Cup final in 2016, during which he shared a backfield with Jacob Stockdale.

However a few months ago, few would have had him down as an Ireland starter. His introduction to the conversation to what is a rapidly changing picture.

Keenan, Stockdale and Lowe
Hugo Keenan and James Lowe are both likely to make their Ireland debuts during the autumn schedule

It was during the autumn internationals three years ago that Joe Schmidt settled on a back three of Stockdale, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney, a combination that would remain his first choice until the end of his tenure as head coach.

With Kearney calling time on his international career and Earls sidelined with a back injury, all signs point towards a reimagined role for Stockdale within the Ireland set-up.

Farrell, along with several members of Ulster's coaching staff including ex-Ireland back Jared Payne, has been talking up Stockdale's skillset as one suited to full-back.

The Ulsterman built his international reputation on being an extraordinary finisher, whose ability to score tries offset some obvious defensive frailties.

Eleven tries in his first nine matches were conclusive proof of what Stockdale brought to the team, therefore five tries in the 17 appearances that have followed have left some questioning his place in the side.

A new position means new responsibilities for Stockdale, and perhaps a new criterion on which to mark him How he copes with under the high ball, his territorial kicking and positioning are among the areas that will come under the microscope on Saturday.

Murray and Sexton show goes on

Amid the shifting sands around them, Ireland's half-back pairing remains the same as it has done now for the best part of nine years.

It seems unfair that every conversation around Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton should include at least a nod to their age, invariably leading to questions over whether their best days are behind them. Not least because Murray is still just 31.

Murray and Sexton
Sexton and Murray become Ireland's most-capped half-back pairing during last year's World Cup

What can be said with some degree of confidence is that neither's position as a starter appears under immediate threat.

That is to say, there is no player in either position currently making an irrefutable case as to why they should dethrone the incumbent.

Had John Cooney's pre-lockdown form continued in August, or had Joey Carbery not been relentlessly plagued by injury, Murray and Sexton's places may have been the subject of more debate but as it stands their inclusion in the starting side remains as obvious as it ever has.

Both players have ambitions of making their third Lions tour next summer, and neither are the shoe-ins that they were in 2017. This may provide an extra modicum of motivation, but having lasted this long as the top end of the sport, motivation doesn't appear to be an issue for either player.

An Ireland team with Murray and Sexton at its heart is nothing unfamiliar, but all around the veteran duo new narratives are emerging as Ireland make a push for the most peculiar of Six Nations titles.

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