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Back in February, John Cooney was threatening to take the number 9 jersey from Conor Murray. Now, Cooney misses out on the squad altogether for Ireland’s remaining 6 Nations games against Italy and France.
Cooney was Farrell’s go-to man when Murray needed to be pulled or rested earlier this year. However, the long absence of rugby has halted the 30-year-old’s form. Firstly, Joe Schmidt omitted him from the World Cup squad. This seemed to spur on Cooney who raised his game accordingly. Then, Farrell recalled him to the International set-up for the 6 Nations. In fact, Cooney impressed whenever he was called upon. Furthermore, many were hoping he would start alongside Sexton.
However, since Rugby has returned Cooney has not emulated this form. Losses to Connacht and Leinster were confidence drainers. After that, Kiwi Alby Mathewson replaced him for the Pro14 Final against Leinster. In the new season’s opener against Treviso last weekend, Cooney did show flashes of what he can offer. For example, one scintillating grubber kick gave Ulster a five-pointer on their way to a bonus-point win.
But, it seems Farrell had already made his mind up. With a festival of games coming up for Ireland, the Head Coach has chosen to look to the future.
Conor Murray will remain first-choice scrum-half. He is set to return to training with Munster this week after an injury. Now that his nearest contender has been defeated, he has another stint in the jersey ahead of him.
On the other hand, there are a host of scrum-halves ready to take their chance. Luke McGrath has been among the options for Farrell. But, his club partner Jamison Gibson-Park is eligible and in good form. Gibson-Park is currently uncapped but has trained with Farrell’s squad previously. He could be a contender for a debut which could be at McGrath’s expense.
In contrast, many fans will be hoping for a second chance for Connacht’s Kieran Marmion. The 28-year-old missed the cut for the World Cup. As a result, his form dropped and injury held him back. However, he has since been displaying the kind of form that earned him his 27 caps. Now fully fit, the fact that Cooney misses out is Marmion’s chance to prove he was hard done by this time last year.
In addition to this, Munster’s 21-year-old scrum-half Craig Casey has his good displays rewarded with a place in the squad as a ‘development player’.
Elsewhere, Ian Madigan’s return to Irish soil has not yet yielded a return to International action. He misses out on a squad place, as does JJ Hanrahan of Munster.
Instead, Jack Carty returns to International duty. He and Ross Byrne will have the job of competing for Sexton’s jersey. Farrell continues to mould Harry Byrne for the future also.
Marmion, Carty, and Quinn Roux should be joining Aki as Connacht representatives. Moreover, Prop Finlay Bealham joins the camp. He already has international experience and will be an asset to Farrell who has a competitive roster of front rows.
In the backs, Keith Earls’ injury has him sidelined. Hugo Keenan and Shane Daly can come in to offer cover among the back three.
Despite being eligible in November, Farrell has opted against giving a place to Leinster’s James Lowe. But everyone will be shocked if he does not get called in at some stage to what we believe is an eight week isolated squad at Carton House.
In the forwards, Max Deegan may miss out to some surprise. Likewise with Devin Toner. Ryan Baird comes in to join James Ryan.
The fact that John Cooney misses out is no footnote. However, there is plenty to look forward to as Farrell has a golden opportunity to develop the squad he wants for the future.
In an eight-week camp with no relief, the players will have more than enough time to impress their head coach.
Ireland Rugby Squad for Autumn Internationals according to sources.
Hookers: Dave Heffernan, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher.
Props: Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, John Ryan, Finlay Bealham.
Locks: Quinn Roux, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Ryan Baird, Tadhg Beirne.
Backrows: Will Connors, Caelan Doris, Jack O’Donoghue, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier.
Scrumhalves: Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion, Jamison Gibson-Park, Craig Casey.
Outhalves: Johnny Sexton, Jack Carty, Ross Byrne, Harry Byrne.
Centres: Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose.
Outside-Backs: Andrew Conway, Shane Daly, Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, Hugo Keenan.
Three weeks from the @SixNationsRugby means we are only six weeks from the first ever @autumnnations! 😁 https://t.co/pQpRyhGXOM
— Autumn Nations Cup (@autumnnations) October 3, 2020