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Andy Farrell keen to assess how Billy Burns adjusts to Ireland action


In hand: Billy Burns collects a pass during Ireland training in Dublin

In hand: Billy Burns collects a pass during Ireland training in Dublin

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

In hand: Billy Burns collects a pass during Ireland training in Dublin

By full-time on Friday night, Andy Farrell will have capped 37 players in six matches as Ireland coach. James Lowe and Billy Burns are the eighth and ninth debutants in the Englishman's short time in charge.

The next four weeks offer a chance for Farrell to put in place the bedrocks for this squad for the 2021 Six Nations and the 2023 World Cup. Four games of little consequence in a short window will test his depth chart, but will also give him a chance to find out about players and build combinations while putting his own imprint on the game plan and rebuilding confidence.

He expects to use more than the 34 players currently in the squad during this window, so we can expect some call-ups for the Georgia game.

But, with Wales and England first up, there's a balance to be struck between offering opportunity and winning games.

The selection for Friday's game against Wales told us a lot about where there is room to manoeuvre and where he needs to build depth.

Only a third of the starting XV retain their positions from the defeat in Paris.

Injuries have an impact, but front-row and half-back look the thinnest places in the squad right now.

Props Cian Healy and Andrew Porter continue. Between them, Ronan Kelleher gets his first start and may remain in the No.2 jersey throughout this window.


Maiden outing: James Lowe will make his Ireland debut against Wales

Maiden outing: James Lowe will make his Ireland debut against Wales

�INPHO/Billy Stickland

Maiden outing: James Lowe will make his Ireland debut against Wales

To aid the new hooker, Farrell has gone for a lineout heavy pack - with Peter O'Mahony and Caelan Doris offering height from the back-row and Iain Henderson back from his ban to take his slot at second-row alongside James Ryan.

Josh van der Flier comes into the team in the knowledge that Will Connors has leapfrogged him and Dan Leavy is on the recovery trail. He needs a big game.

Behind the scrum, the biggest change of all comes at half-back where Conor Murray makes way for Jamison Gibson-Park.

Since he started against Italy at the 2011 World Cup, Murray has come off the bench just once in 79 internationals when he deputised for Eoin Reddan in the 2013 defeat to Australia.

He may well be restored against England on Saturday week, but his coach wants Gibson-Park to light a fire under the established man.

"That's what we're all hoping for and deep down I'm sure Conor is as well," Farrell said.

"We've got good people here. They want competition, whether they admit it or not, because that will make them better and that's how we move forward as a group."

After being hauled ashore early in Paris, Bundee Aki loses out to Chris Farrell, while in the back three Lowe gets his chance to shine alongside Hugo Keenan and Jacob Stockdale, who has another shot at redemption.

While there is decent depth in a number of positions, and a crop of injured players to come in before the Six Nations, the big concern remains out-half where competition for Johnny Sexton is non-existent.

Ulster's former England Under-20 out-half Burns is the man charged with making an impression after Ross Byrne struggled in Paris.

With Joey Carbery sidelined indefinitely, Farrell could do with Burns making the place his own.

"You've a world-class player who won World Player of the Year and who has been an integral part of Irish rugby in Johnny," Farrell said.

"It's always going to be hard to push Johnny. You see how these people (Burns, Byrne and Jack Carty) perform under pressure and this type of environment. It's not just about the performance at the weekend but how they handle galvanising the team during the week is pretty important; the mental game is pretty important in the international game and 10s are right at the heart of that."

Overall, he was not overly concerned as he assessed the overall depth of the panel.

The lineout, post-Devin Toner, is one of the areas he says is "young in its development", while the front-row combination needs time together.

The back-row, back three and midfield are competitive, but he concedes that "obviously" the half-backs need some attention.

He is offering opportunity and the message is that if you take it, the jersey is yours to keep.

"We're not promising anything for next week," Farrell said.

It's up to the players to take their chance.

Ireland v Wales

Aviva Stadium, Friday, 7.00pm

Ireland: Stockdale; Keenan, Farrell, Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton, Gibson-Park; Healy, Kelleher, Porter; Henderson, Ryan; O'Mahony, Van der Flier, Doris.

Replacements: Heffernan, E Byrne, Bealham, Roux, Connors, Murray, Burns, Earls.

Belfast Telegraph