What impact can Ireland’s returning stars have on Grand Slam dream?

Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong 20/3/2021
Andy Farrell gave Ireland supporters the news they had been desperate to hear after Finlay Bealham’s injury in their 34-20 victory over Italy – Tadhg Furlong is fighting fit.

Andy Farrell gave Ireland supporters the news they had been desperate to hear after Finlay Bealham’s injury in their 34-20 victory over Italy – Tadhg Furlong is fighting fit.

Bealham suffered a nasty knee ligament injury and was seen with a knee brace on, after being tackled awkwardly.

That makes Furlong’s return essential, but there is also due to be the return of scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park and centre Robbie Henshaw right when it matters and skipper Johnny Sexton is also due to be fit.

Of course, Irish rugby is in a very healthy state right now – the world number one side, with three victories from three in the Championship as they search for a first Grand Slam since 2018.

The next game however, is arguably the toughest they will have faced in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, as Farrell and his side visit BT Murrayfield to take on Scotland, who themselves are chasing the Triple Crown.

Farrell will now have some of his star names back fit and firing, but how can they impact Ireland and how will they give serious selection headaches to Ireland’s coaching team?

Furlong back just in time

Victory over Italy was an important step in Ireland’s Grand Slam dreams, but it did not come without cost, as tighthead prop Finlay Bealham’s injury has ruled him out of the remainder of the Guinness Six Nations.

That would have made Farrell’s words following that win in Rome feel that much sweeter.

“Tadhg (Furlong) is going really well and we would expect him to train Wednesday and Thursday when we’re in camp,” said Ireland’s head coach.

Furlong has been struggling with a hamstring and then a calf injury and has not played any rugby in 2023, but his return is just what Ireland needed.

The Leinster prop is one of the very best in world rugby in all facets of his game, at the scrum, in the loose and at the breakdown and with Bealham out his return is timely.

Bealham has delivered so far this Championship, especially in the thrilling win over France, and there would have been an interesting decision to be made had he been fit.

But with Furlong now ready to go, Farrell’s worries will be over in that area, and if he can get to even close to where he was before, Scotland will have their work cut out.

Sexton the man to take on genius Russell

Johnny Sexton had been in excellent form against both Wales and France, before he missed the trip to Rome with injury.

He is expected to be back for the trip to Edinburgh, which is excellent news for Farrell and all Ireland supporters, because his opposite man at BT Murrayfield, Finn Russell is in the form of his life in a Scotland shirt.

Delivering with a try and another try assist in Scotland’s narrow defeat to France in Paris, Russell’s tally is now at a try and four try assists and all areas of his game were there for all to see at the Stade de France, not least his incredible range of kicking.

But one man who can do things Russell can is Sexton, who has been there and done that in an Ireland shirt and will not be worrying about how to stop his opposite number, but rather how he can be better than him on the day.

Russell, a genius in attack, is statistically the weakest defender across the whole Championship, missing ten tackles in three matches (28% of his tackle attempts) and Sexton is exactly the man who will look to exploit that.

A fly-half who has never been worried about taking a big hit when running flat to the line, Sexton will be looking to get his strike runners going straight into Russell’s channel – in the form of Caelan Doris, Robbie Henshaw or even James Lowe.

Russell may be very tricky to stop defensively with so many strings to his bow, but Sexton has the experience and the big game nous to win that key battle – so Farrell will be crossing his fingers he is fit to play on Sunday 12th March.

Henshaw’s return can form perfect midfield

Robbie Henshaw’s performances in the historic series win over New Zealand were simply world class and replacing a player of his calibre is extremely difficult to do.

Stuart McCloskey has been the man filling that void, and he has been fantastic on both sides of the ball, making 205 metres, winning a turnover and making 25 tackles to name but a few of his key statistics.

But he does lack some things Henshaw has in his locker, namely his pace and ability to get the ball away when tackled.

Henshaw also plays his club rugby with Sexton and Garry Ringrose, and that has been a set midfield for a number of years for Leinster and Ireland.

Henshaw and Ringrose is in many ways the perfect midfield – power, pace, creating, scoring and a secondary kicking option are all covered, while their relationship together is an unbreakable one.

McCloskey and Bundee Aki were paired together in Rome in what is a duo of two very powerful one-up runners, but also two players who would have barely played together over the years and although they both had good games, there was clearly a slight lack of cohesion between Ross Byrne and the duo.

Assuming Sexton, Henshaw and Ringrose are all fit and back together again – Ireland may just have the perfect midfield to take on Scotland.

Gibson Park faces battle for nine jersey

Before his injury, Jamison Gibson-Park was the undisputed first choice scrum-half, and when he was ruled out of the Wales game at short notice, there were those that were worried about how Conor Murray and Craig Casey could fill that void.

But fans did not need to worry, and Gibson-Park now faces a genuine battle to regain his starting jersey, such have been the performances of both Murray and Casey this Championship.

Murray will surely go down as Ireland’s greatest ever scrum-half when he retires, but his form was not quite where it was which saw Gibson-Park take over the starting role.

Now with two try assists to his name this Guinness Six Nations and linking up with long-time partner Sexton in the half-backs, Gibson-Park is by no means guaranteed his shirt back.

Casey also enjoyed a fine showing off the bench against France before a strong display in the starting jersey in Rome, adding another wrinkle to the selection call.

Farrell’s decision here will have to now be taken on a game-by-game basis, would he rather have the up-tempo scrum-half in Gibson Park or the calm-headed, faultless No.9 in Murray on the field at specific points in the game.

Whatever Farrell does decide to do, he has three phenomenal scrum-halves to take to the World Cup in September and will have the whole world looking on in envy.