Rory Best to skipper Ireland as Six Nations squad announced
ULSTER’S Rory Best will captain an Ireland squad that includes four new faces for this year’s RBS Six Nations.
The 33-year-old hooker had been widely expected to take over from Paul O’Connell, who retired from international duty in the wake of last autumn’s World Cup.
He made his international debut against New Zealand in 2005 and captained his country for the first time against Canada in 2009.
The experienced front-rower, whose elder brother Simon also captained Ireland for two games in 2007, becomes the first Ulster player to captain Ireland on a permanent basis since Paddy Johns skippered them for ten games between June 1998 and April 1999.
Best will lead a squad that includes four uncapped players. Among them is in-form Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey, whose fine form this season has propelled him up the pecking order.
The 23-year-old will be up against clubmates Luke Marshall and Jared Payne as well as Luke Fitzgerald, Robbie Henshaw and possibly Keith Earls for a place in midfield.
However, he will not have Leinster starlet Garry Ringrose in his path as the clamour for the 20-year-old’s inclusion was ignored by Joe Schmidt.
It had been expected that Ringrose would be one of the uncapped players to be called in, but McCloskey is instead joined by flankers CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier – both recently naturalised – and young Connacht lock Ultan Dillane.
In all, Ulster has seven representatives on the 35-man squad announced yesterday.
Rob Herring will provide back-up for Best, while Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble are all included.
The one remaining province with a hope of qualifying for the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup, their recent displays have done no harm to the likes of McCloskey and Marshall, who have enjoyed a fine midfield combination in recent weeks.
Jared Payne only made his first appearance of the season in last weekend’s defeat by Saracens but he remains the most likely of the trio to start against Wales.
Robbie Henshaw has been out for six weeks with a fractured hand but is expected to return for Connacht this weekend. How he gets through that could determine who Schmidt gives the other midfield spot to.
Paddy Jackson’s fine displays of late could see him edge his way on to the replacements bench in reserve for Johnny Sexton. The Ulster fly-half would be disappointed were he not viewed ahead of Ian Madigan at present.
However, there is no place for Darren Cave, while Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy remain on the injured list.
Experienced props Mike Ross and Cian Healy, and back-row Chris Henry have been left off the initial squad owing to injuries, but they could be introduced during the tournament.
Peter O’Mahony – who had been regarded as a potential captain – has failed to overcome the injury woes that so devastated Ireland’s World Cup bid, while Leinster’s Jordi Murphy is dropped as Schmidt introduces uncapped duo CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier.
Leinster’s Garry Ringrose, whose impressive breakthrough had led to calls for his inclusion, is not included however on a squad that will see Jamie Heaslip act as vice-captain to Best.
In total, there are nine of the 31-man squad that travelled to last Autumn’s World Cup missing, including retired former captain Paul O’Connell.
Ireland host Warren Gatland’s Wales in their opening game on Sunday 7 February at a sold out Aviva Stadium before travelling to Paris to take on France.
Video: Rory Best says it is a "massive honour" to captain Ireland
Ireland Six Nations Squad
Forwards: Rory Best, Rob Herring, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie Heaslip, Mike McCarthy, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Sean O'Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier, James Cronin, Tommy O'Donnell, Donnacha Ryan, CJ Stander, Ultan Dillane, Nathan White
Backs: Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney, Rob Kearney, Ian Madigan, Eoin Reddan, Jonathan Sexton, Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw