Ulster scrum-half John Cooney has been left out of Ireland’s squad for the final two rounds of the Six Nations.
Connacht’s Kieran Marmion and the uncapped, New Zealand-born Jamison Gibson-Park are the preferred options alongside longstanding starting scrum-half Conor Murray.
Head coach Andy Farrell has included six uncapped players in total with Leinster’s Ryan Baird, Hugo Keenan, Ed Byrne and Will Connors rewarded for impressive provincial form alongside Munster’s Shane Daly.
Tadhg Furlong, who has not played since rugby’s return in August, is not included as a calf injury continues to hamper the British and Irish Lions prop.
Ireland sit fourth in the table having won two of the three matches they played before the competition was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic.
Having played one game fewer than the teams above them, Ireland know that collecting maximum points from their two remaining fixtures would see them win the tournament.
Farrell’s side are set to host Italy on 24 October before concluding their campaign against France in Paris a week later.
Another tough call for Cooney
It is another bitter blow for Cooney, who spoke earlier this week about his disappointment at being benched for Ulster’s Pro14 final against Leinster last month.
Poor form since rugby’s return from lockdown in August has contributed to both selection decisions going against the 30-year-old, while he also missed out on the 2019 World Cup squad.
Despite indifferent recent displays the omission is still something of a shock for the Dubliner who was recently named Ulster’s Player of the Year after another influential campaign for the northern province.
Cooney came off the bench in all three of Ireland’s Six Nations matches earlier this year, and his form at Ulster was such that there was considerable debate as to whether the 30-year-old had done enough to dislodge Conor Murray as the starting scrum-half.
Speaking to Sportsound Extra Time earlier this week, Cooney indicated that he was in line for “a good run-out” against Italy in February before the game was cancelled as a result of the pandemic.
A return to favour for Marmion, who had established himself as Murray’s chief back-up in 2018 before a dip in form, and Gibson-Park’s impressive showings for Leinster have coincided with Cooney’s off-colour displayers.
Unsurprisingly Leinster is the most represented province, with 17 members of the 35-man squad coming from the Pro14 champions.
With injury keeping Max Deegan and Dan Leavy out of the side, there is still a formidable back row presence from the Dublin side with Connors and Baird included alongside Caelan Doris, whose international debut against Wales in February was cut short by an early head injury.
Wing Keenan, who impressed upon rugby’s return in August, will join the competition for a starting berth in the back three while Jonathan Sexton is named as captain despite suffering a minor hamstring injury last week.
Ross Byrne and Jack Carty are the other recognised fly-halves in the squad with Joey Carbery still sidelined.
Harry Byrne, Craig Casey, James Lowe, James Tracy and Fineen Wycherley have not been named in the squad but will train alongside them when they meet in Dublin next week.
The conclusion of the Six Nations will be followed by the Autumn Nations Cup, which will see Ireland play Wales, England and Georgia before concluding their 2020 campaign with a play-off.
Ireland’s Six Nations squad
Forwards: R Baird, F Bealham, T Beirne, E Byrne, W Connors, J Conan, C Doris, C Healy, D Heffernan, I Henderson, R Herring, R Kelleher, P O’Mahony, A Porter, Q Roux, James Ryan, John Ryan, CJ Stander, J van der Flier.
Backs: B Aki, R Byrne, J Carty, A Conway, S Daly, C Farrell, J Gibson-Park, R Henshaw, H Keenan, J Larmour, K Marmion, S McCloskey, C Murray, G Ringrose, J Sexton, J Stockdale.