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Marmion, Carty and Co can force Farrell’s hand

Across Ireland’s five Six Nations games and three November Tests in 2021, Connacht players featured in only four matches – tallying a combined 250 minutes of action.

ith three starts, including one that was ended early by his red card against England, Bundee Aki (203) accounted for the bulk of that playing time, while bench minutes for Finlay Bealham (40) and Ultan Dillane (7) completed their lot. In broader terms, Connacht players accounted for just 2.6pc of playing time across those eight internationals.

Such levels of representation are regularly a source of discontent in the west, with a stubborn belief that their players are often unfairly overlooked when competing with options from Leinster, Munster and Ulster. But, to me, I think their 2021 minutes were probably about right – a reflection of their inconsistent performances. It’s hard to stand out in a struggling team.

Connacht lost five of their six games in the run-up to last year’s Six Nations – including home defeats to Munster, Ulster and Ospreys – the anomaly being their surprise RDS success against Leinster in early January 2021.

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Their form across a similar period this season has been almost a complete reversal, Sportsground wins against Munster, Ulster and Ospreys and Stade Francais tempered by defeats on the road to Leinster and Leicester.

There has been a shift in Andy Friend’s side this season, and I expect that to be reflected in Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad – Aki, Dillane, Dave Heffernan and Quinn Roux made the initial 2021 crew, with Bealham a late call-up.

If Friend’s side can continue on their upward trajectory against Leicester today, there are a number of players who could force Farrell’s hand for inclusion – particularly around some of the tighter calls.

There would be widespread shock if Jack Carty wasn’t included – whether Joey Carbery returns in time will likely decide the Connacht No 10’s place is second or third in the fly-half pecking order though.

Carty is having a brilliant season as Connacht’s skipper; some players get weighed down by the burden of captaincy but he has thrived with the extra responsibility.

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Carty has proved, with this step up and his recovery from the disappointment of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, he has character in abundance – which won’t be lost on Farrell.

He doesn’t roar at team-mates with a Johnny Sexton-like pitch, but he gives confidence to those around him with calm instructions and sharp decision-making.

Kieran Marmion is another who, for me, has played himself back into the Irish Six Nations squad – although competition for scrum-half spots is more intense than at No 10.

He has also had to roll with the punches in recent years, and it’s been refreshing to see him come out the other side again this season.

In Connacht’s scrappy 10-8 win against Munster, where nearly everyone struggled for traction, he was one of the few who moved with genuine intent.

As it stands, you’d expect Jamison Gibson-Park and Conor Murray to be nailed on for Farrell’s squad, with a shoot-out between Marmion and Craig Casey for the third spot.

Not only would victory today help Marmion’s cause, the fact he is starting in Europe gives him a great opportunity to make his case.

Due to less squad depth in the west, Connacht’s frontline players have had, for the most part, more minutes on the field than their contemporaries in the other provinces across this disrupted season.

As a result, they also feature prominently in the many of the United Rugby Championship’s statistic tables – Carty (top points scorer), Mack Hansen (top try scorer; first for clean breaks, defenders beaten and metres gained), Conor Oliver (second for successful carries; fourth for tackles made) and Oisín Dowling (fourth for lineout steals) – which also make them difficult to ignore.

It’s a shame Hansen’s troublesome calf has ruled him out again today, but I think he has done enough to warrant a look in the Ireland set-up – where he could join the likes of Aki, Carty, Marmion and Bealham – if fitness allows.

Oliver has been outstanding this season but it’s difficult to see how you would squeeze him into the stacked back-row options Farrell already has.

Two bolters I would be looking at, however, are second-row Dowling (24) and 21-year-old blindside Cian Prendergast – even as development players for now.

Both have caught my eye every time I’ve seen them this season and I think their performances warrant recognition, even if it is just as part of the wider training group for now.

They, along with their Connacht team-mates, have an opportunity to record a famous European victory and convince Farrell they are capable of mixing it with the very best. Motivation won’t be hard to find today.

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