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Alan Quinlan: Addison in but no Cooney or Stockdale in my team for Six Nations opener against Scotland

 

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Will Addison

Will Addison

�INPHO/Bryan Keane

Will Addison

Something felt particularly fresh this week, and it had nothing to do with the mild weather.

Twelve men - coaches and captains - represented their respective unions at the Six Nations launch in London on Wednesday. Only four of them fulfilled the same duties 12 months ago.

Change is afoot, across the board. The unsightly Saracens saga is still dominating discourse but with the Ireland squad now in Portugal, and the Six Nations just seven days away, soon enough there will only be one rugby show in town.

A new head coach - even one appointed internally - will always shake things up. Players are professional, not robotic. They will be trying to seek a new edge, making sure the extras they are doing get seen, as the scramble for Ireland jerseys nears.

Barring any late fitness hiccups, I imagine Andy Farrell will already know the match-day 23 he will name on Tuesday afternoon.

I hope he is surer in his mind around the marginal selections than I am; I'm still weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of back-rowers, centres and scrum-halves.

Balance may not be sexy, but it's important. Talk of a 'new dawn' will inevitably follow the appointment of a new coaching ticket, but the Six Nations remains a massive prize, cash-cow and seeding platform for international rugby.

Opting for inexperience across the field would not only be foolish, it could also be detrimental to the development of our next wave of elite players.

With that in mind, this is why I have opted for the following match-day 23.

FRONT-ROW

Dave Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter have rarely let Ireland down off the bench, and from the start when called upon to start the dig themselves. They are two of the few who could be generally pleased with their individual efforts in Japan, but the form of Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong with Leinster, and the added comfort they would give Rónan Kelleher on debut, keeps them in front in my eyes. The game against Scotland will mark eight weeks since Kelleher injured his hand against Northampton, and while we haven't seen him since, his electric form before that still puts him in front of Rob Herring at hooker.

SECOND-ROW

Having played in an era when an all-Munster tight-five was not uncommon, it feels peculiar to fill those spots entirely with Leinster men, but it's the right decision in my mind. Devin Toner has responded admirably to being left out in Japan. Kelleher's familiarity with the Meath man's lineout calling sees the 6ft 11in lock edge Iain Henderson for the spot alongside immovable James Ryan. If Toner doesn't start he probably fails to make the match-day 23. So if Henderson were to retain his engine-room berth, Ultan Dillane should be his understudy on the bench, where impact should trump all else.

BACK-ROW

There is no shortage of intriguing combinations but to my mind, in terms of balance, having the breakdown and lineout threat and leadership of Peter O'Mahony, the work-rate and tackling prowess of Josh van der Flier, and the footballing skills and clever carrying of Caelan Doris is difficult to improve upon right now. Considering the form in recent weeks of CJ Stander, Jack O'Donoghue and Max Deegan they may all feel they have strong arguments to start, and none are far off. The starting pack I have selected may be a little light on carriers, so having Stander and Henderson as bench options helps to counteract that.

HALF-BACK

Possibly the most marginal call of all; whoever is picked at No 9 on Tuesday will probably be the big takeaway from Andy Farrell's first starting XV. Cooney was a strong front-runner heading into Christmas, but in recent weeks I feel the crisp Conor Murray of old has started to re-emerge. Murray's defensive attributes - essentially operating as an extra back-rower - and his storied partnership with Sexton see him shade it, with Cooney to get the guts of 30 minutes off the bench against a, hopefully, tiring Scottish defence.

CENTRE

Farrell might have five fit-and-firing midfielders to call on but if the intention is to play more expansively, it's hard to look beyond the combination of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. The latter is more or less nailed on at outside centre - he's consistently been one of the best in Europe this season - and while Henshaw hasn't sparkled in the same manner, his skill-set and understanding those inside and outside clinches him the No 12 jersey, with Bundee Aki another exciting option off the bench.

BACK-THREE

Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour showed four months ago, working in tandem against Scotland, what they can bring to this Ireland attack, but their defensive capabilities should also not be underestimated. We have to remember too, as in the case of Murray v Cooney, that marginal selection calls from your former defence coach may be made with a collection of mental notes in mind. Jacob Stockdale is unlucky to miss out, but his defensive lapses need to be ironed out, while Keith Earls just hasn't played enough to warrant inclusion. Dave Kearney is close too. Left wing may not seem a natural fit for Larmour, but it's a necessary shift to get Ulster's Will Addison - who can transform Ireland's counter-attack and broken-field game - into the side at full-back.

Belfast Telegraph