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Ulsterman in line to land key role in Ireland's backline for rest of Six Nations campaign

By Michael Sadlier

An Ulsterman looks odds-on to make next week’s Ireland starting team against Wales and fill the void left in Joe Schmidt’s midfield by Robbie Henshaw’s shoulder injury.

Chris Farrell appears to be the most obvious choice from a number of options at Schmidt’s disposal but this Ulsterman happens to be earning his living at Munster. The Fivemiletown native and former Ulster ace impressed when winning his first cap against Fiji last November and then played against Argentina, when he suffered a knee injury which kept him sidelined for six weeks.

The 24-year-old clearly leads the field for Schmidt’s options and should he decide to simply slot Farrell in alongside Bundee Aki, then it would reunite the pair who played together in midfield for Ireland against Argentina.

Farrell brings a heady combination of physicality and pace, along with some strong tackling and deft handling skills as well, which appear to put the former Campbell College pupil in the driving seat for selection as Ireland bid to make it three wins from three in the Six Nations when they meet Wales on Saturday-week in Dublin.

The Ulsterman was also very much on Schmidt’s radar when he spent three years at Grenoble after leaving Ulster in 2014.

Schmidt was suitably impressed by Farrell’s performances in the autumn Tests and the imposing centre was, notably, one of the extra players attached to the squad in the lead-up to last weekend’s eight-try thumping of Italy.

He has also impressed at Munster, where he has played 13 times since joining them last summer and scored three tries.

The only factor which may weigh against his selection is the knee injury which kept him out for six weeks.

The strong-running centre has played just three games since returning to fitness, including two outings in the Champions Cup.

Even so, that is unlikely to dissuade Schmidt from handing him the number 13 shirt for the Wales game as, in most respects, Farrell fits the bill.

There are other options though open to the Ireland coach who is taking around 20 players to an open training session today in Athlone.

Leinster’s Garry Ringrose is a contender to make the side and has previously shown his immense value to the national team.

On form, the 23-year-old is a class apart at fulfilling the number 13 role but his recent injury profile is holding him back as someone who can easily be parachuted in now that Henshaw will see no further Six Nations action after injuring his shoulder scoring his second try against the struggling Azzurri.

The risk in bringing Ringrose back at this stage — shoulder and ankle issues have curtailed him this season — looks too big to take.

Another contender is Munster’s Rory Scannell though his non-involvement in the November Tests and the fact that selecting him would probably mean moving Aki to 13 looks a long shot.

Schmidt could, of course, decide that Keith Earls is the man for the job. Earls has played and performed well on many occasions in Ireland’s midfield and Schmidt knows that he can rely on the in-form Limerick native to do a more than effective job against the Welsh on Saturday week.

All true, of course, but the Ireland coach is hardly going to bring Earls in off the wing if there is another viable alternative.

The 30-year-old is in the form of his life on Ireland’s right wing and to move him inside would immediately reduce the balance of Schmidt’s back three and force Earls to adapt his game to another position just when he is producing some dazzling plays out on the flank.

And what of Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall? Both could step up, and Marshall can play both centre positions, but they look to be surplus to requirements at the moment and the latter has only come back from injury.

Former Ulster player Sam Arnold, who like Farrell is now at Munster, is another long shot as is Leinster’s Rory O’Loughlin but neither will be seriously expecting the coach to invest his faith in them at this stage.

All the available evidence, and the most pragmatic option, points to Farrell getting the nod.

Belfast Telegraph

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