IRELAND HEAD COACH Andy Farrell is hoping that leaving Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, and Keith Earls out of his squad for two Tests next month will allow them to hit next season with fresh impetus, as well as allowing him to learn more about his depth.

Farrell omitted the three highly-experienced internationals from his 37-man squad to face Japan and the US next month.

Healy, Sexton, and Earls are all heading onto new one-year central IRFU contracts this summer and Farrell is hoping an extended pre-season will help them to produce their very best form in 2021/22.

Farrell confirmed that Sexton is “good to go” now following his recent spell on the sidelines due to concussion but the Ireland boss opted to leave him out as James Ryan takes over the captaincy.

“There’s a plan behind it and the reason for that is it gives opportunities to other lads,” said Farrell.

“These lads [Sexton, Healy, and Earls] understand that and hopefully agree with that and for them to have a proper rest and on top of that come back and have a proper pre-season where they can make gains with their body and come into the start of next season with the fire burning rapidly is going to benefit us all in the long-term.

“Just to add context, for the lads who play with us and for the Lions, that means that they will start their pre-season a lot later than others. For Johnny, Cian, Keith, and a few other lads as well, they will now probably get eight or nine weeks of a pre-season which they can probably make gains with while other lads might get four or five.”

Ireland boss Andy Farrell. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Farrell stressed that he had spoken to Lions boss Warren Gatland about the situation and said Sexton, Healy, and Earls will be “training in the background and keeping themselves fit” in case the tourists suffer any injuries in their positions.

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There are 11 uncapped players in Farrell’s Ireland squad, including halfbacks Caolin Blade and Harry Byrne, who is included ahead of his older brother, Ross.

Joey Carbery is also back in the squad for the first time since the 2019 World Cup and Farrell is excited to learn more about his options in that area.

“Joey has been out of the system for quite some time and you don’t get many windows like this one to give people time,” said Farrell. “We all know that at international level we need to find out, especially in those halfback positions, whether a player can come in and run the ship straight from the word go.

“So to give Joey that opportunity… he has been playing really well and his last game was his best.

“Harry has been injured quite a bit during the season but he is back to fitness now and we have been wanting to give him some time and exposure and this is the right time to do that.

“As far as Ross [Byrne] is concerned, I suppose he is in the same boat as Jack Carty or Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion, etc. Those guys have been in and done great jobs for us in the past and they will take a rest, albeit on standby to come back in, and they will be in line to come back in next year.”

Farrell confirmed that Connacht’s Gavin Thornbury had been ruled out of contention through injury, with Ulster’s John Cooney and Eric O’Sullivan, and Leinster’s James Lowe in the same boat. Ross Byrne has an ankle issue but Farrell indicated that Ireland would have selected Carbery, Harry Byrne and Billy Burns at out-half regardless.

Gavin Thornbury is currently injured. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ryan will captain Ireland, having led the team for the first time last year, and after missing out on Lions selection.

“I was surprised,” said Farrell of Gatland’s call in that regard. “I think he’s a class player, bordering on world-class, in my opinion.

“James knows that there’s room to improve his game and one of those is his leadership role. He has come on leaps and bounds and we’ve invested a couple of times with James in that role. He’ll have learned some lessons from that and he’ll be looking forward to what’s ahead of him.

“I think his form since not getting selected for the Lions has been outstanding, actually. Some of his attack work has been top-class, his lineout calling has really come on so he’s taking responsibility. There’ll be other guys that will be in that leadership group, which has yet to be decided that will step up and help James become a better captain also.”

As for his own Lions prospects, Farrell confirmed that Gatland is keeping a spot open for the Ireland head coach to potentially link up with the tourists in South Africa after Ireland’s games.

“I’ve spoken to Warren a couple of times and I’m more than happy, obviously, to help out because it’s an unbelievable honour to be involved in the Lions,” said Farrell.

“Where it stands at this moment in time is that Warren has left a spot open there and he wants to see how the workload goes in the first week or so of the camps. If he needs any help in and around all of that, I’m happy to help.

“The experience that they’ve got there in the coaching staff is top-class and the experience they’ve got in the management group is top-class as well, so I’m sure they’ll be fine.”