Andy Farrell is faced with a selection dilemma ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Italy on Sunday.
While the likelihood is that France will go onto win the Six Nations via a Grand Slam, or through bonus points, there is still hope that if they slip up Ireland could nick the Championship with a superior points difference, just like in 2014 and 2015.
Currently France have a points difference of 33, England 30, and Ireland 16. With both France and England facing tougher assignments this weekend, putting a big score on Italy at home is Ireland's best opportunity to make up the difference.
Ireland's best chance to put up such a score is to have a certain degree of first XV experience and continuity. Furthermore, new players who are brought in will benefit from playing alongside first teamers rather than a squad with wholesale changes.
With a need to win and win big, and the importance of building depth with an eye on the Summer tour to New Zealand and half an eye on the World Cup, a blend of experience and youth is the best way forward.
With the injury to Ronan Kelleher, it’s a straight swap for Dan Sheehan at hooker. Sheehan, as usual, was magnificent in the loose against France, but will be disappointed with a crucial lineout going astray. The more experience he gets throwing at the top-level the better.
Porter, although an experienced campaigner, is still adjusting to the scrum at loosehead, and for continuity purposes, Furlong should also start.
Finlay Bealham, Dave Kilcoyne, and Rob Herring should freshen things up around 60 minutes, injury permitting.
Iain Henderson starting is a no-brainer as he looks to get more minutes under his belt after returning from injury. Ireland’s stand-in captain James Ryan should partner him as he looks also looks to gain more experience leading his country.
Ryan Baird will provide his usual impact from the bench against tired bodies.
Gavin Coombes is one of the most promising players in the country, and his international experience does not reflect the impact he has had at Champions Cup-level for Munster. With an eye on building depth at 8 before the World Cup, it is imperative he adds to his international game time.
Given our depth at back-row, it is not hugely important who takes up the 6 and 7 roles on the team as any player will slot in seamlessly, and Farrell will have his own plan or a combination he wants to try out.
For continuity, Doris starts in our team, with Peter O’Mahony at 7, and Tadhg Beirne on the bench with the opportunity to try him out at 6.
Joey Carbery starting after his impressive showing against France is essential as we look to build our depth at 10. Playing outside Gibson Park will also benefit Ireland in the long-run.
Craig Casey and Jack Carty will act as the perfect impact subs, while Ireland also have the option of moving Carbery to 15.
Henshaw will most likely come into the starting XV, and while there will be huge temptation to start James Hume, he can slot into the 23 jersey as he did against Wales and still get valuable game time off the bench.
With Ireland's first choice centre partnership still undecided, seeing Ringrose and Henshaw team up before they face England will provide valuable intel for Andy Farrell.
This is where fans are expecting the most change with James Lowe back from injury, and the Ulstermen Robert Baloucoune and Mike Lowry continuing to impress for their province.
While starting these three will be a completely new back-three, Lowe and Baloucoune have Irish experience, and Lowry should excel against a weak Italian side.
Playing outside the tried and tested Ringrose/Henshaw combo will also help alleviate any familiarity issues.
Ireland XV vs Italy:
- Andrew Porter
- Dan Sheehan
- Tadhg Furlong
- James Ryan
- Iain Henderson
- Caelan Doris
- Peter O’Mahony
- Gavin Coombes
- Jamieson Gibson Park
- Joey Carbery
- James Lowe
- Robbie Henshaw
- Garry Ringrose
- Robert Baloucoune
- Mike Lowry
Subs: Dave Kilcoyne, Rob Herring, Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Tadhg Beirne, Craig Casey, Jack Carty, James Hume.