INs: Craig Casey, Tadhg Furlong, Dave Kilcoyne, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Rhys Ruddock
OUT (from 34-man 2020 Autumn Nations Cup squad): Finlay Bealham, Ed Byrne, Kieran Marmion, John Ryan, Jacob Stockdale.
The big winner in a position that has presented Andy Farrell with a whole host of quality options. The uncapped Munster scrum-half has bolted through the field of viable competitors (see John Cooney below) to potentially form a Test tag team with first-choice number nine Conor Murray that has worked so well at provincial level since lockdown.
The back row was overlooked by Andy Farrell throughout the incoming head coach’s first year in charge as his young Leinster comrades earned their spurs but Ruddock’s continued good form has been impossible to ignore any longer and his leadership will be a valuable addition to the squad throughout the campaign.
His place in the Six Nations squad was never in doubt but the absence of Jacob Stockdale through injury, at least for the opening round, and fit-again Jordan Larmour’s troubles under the high ball at the weekend have opened the way for the Leinster flyer to stake a claim to the Ireland full-back’s jersey.
What Craig Casey has gained from Six Nations selection has come largely at the expense of Ulster’s goal-kicking scrum-half, whose stock has inexplicably plummeted in the space of 10 months. A year ago Cooney was poised to star ahead of Conor Murray before the pandemic brought the championship to a sudden halt and he has not had a sniff of a Test cap since, despite some excellent and match-winning form for his province this season.
The second row is another position crowded with in-form candidates but the return to fitness of Iain Henderson, sidelined since the Autumn Nations Cup with a knee injury and the re-emergence of Connacht locks Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane means Baird may have to bide his time for Test recognition a little longer having been on the cusp of a debut last autumn before injury denied him.
The Connacht fly-half has missed out again despite regaining the form that earned him a place in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad. In his absence from Farrell’s squad for the Autumn Nations Cup, Ulster’s Billy Burns has stolen a march as back-up to Johnny Sexton while Carty’s stellar performance in Connacht’s victory over Leinster earlier this month appears to have been in vain.