By Ed Elliot, PA
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has backed in-form Mack Hansen to swiftly adapt to the demands of Test rugby after handing him a debut in the Guinness Six Nations opener against Wales.
Australia-born Hansen has been rewarded for a string of standout displays for Connacht with a place on the left wing for Saturday’s sold-out Dublin clash with Wayne Pivac’s reigning champions.
Hansen, who has an Irish mother, trained with Farrell’s squad during the autumn and has been fast-tracked into the starting XV following an injury to James Lowe.
Return of 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐌𝐚𝐜𝐤! 😍
Looking forward to seeing you out there in green on Saturday, Mack! #TeamOfUs | #IREvWAL pic.twitter.com/F8xFYETkhA
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 3, 2022
“He’s a smart rugby player, he makes things happen,” Farrell said of the 23-year-old.
“He knows how to get himself involved in the game. He’s got great feel, a good skillset across the board.
“It’s tough when you first come into international camps but the ones who do it best hit the ground running and end up getting to a good few caps.
“They’re the guys that are able to be told once, maybe twice, and pick things up straight away and Mack certainly did that.”
Ireland fans, are you ready? Here is your team to face Wales this weekend... ☘️#GuinnessSixNations #IREvWAL pic.twitter.com/ZxlS47QASJ
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 3, 2022
Hansen – the United Rugby Championship’s leading try-scorer – has crossed six times in nine appearances for his province since moving from Canberra-based club Brumbies last year.
He comes into a relatively-settled Ireland team, with Tadhg Beirne replacing Iain Henderson in the second row the only other change to the team which started November’s stunning win over New Zealand.
Ulster captain Henderson has resumed full training following an ankle injury suffered in December and is expected to be involved for the round-two trip to France.
Centre Robbie Henshaw is a surprise omission from Farrell’s 23-man squad having overcome a slight groin issue, while Keith Earls also misses out and is set for a scan on a hamstring strain suffered on Wednesday.
Bundee Aki – who excelled in the 29-20 success over the All Blacks – has been selected ahead of fellow British and Irish Lion Henshaw and will partner Garry Ringrose in midfield, with Ulster’s James Hume providing back-up from the bench.
“Robbie had a little bit of a niggle on an adductor towards the end of last week, a good few days of rehab has got him back up to speed again,” explained Farrell.
“He missed a couple of sessions there and that allowed the other three guys to get through their work.
“Robbie’s fine. The rehab has done him good, so Bundee and Ringer get to start.”
Ireland go into the championship on an eight-match winning run, having produced their finest rugby of the Farrell era during autumn victories over Japan, New Zealand and Argentina.
Farrell, whose squad this week returned from a training camp in Portugal, believes team spirit remains high.
“Portugal was great because we worked unbelievably hard,” he said.
“The lads gelled but, more than anything, they were pushing each other hard day in and day out to get to a point where we know we’re going to improve.
Wednesday Session ✔️
Portugal Training Camp ✔️
😍 Walking into the opening weekend of the #GuinnessSixNations like...#TeamOfUs | #IREvWAL pic.twitter.com/mzFZsILbdO
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 2, 2022
“All in all, it was a great camp and a great build up for what’s going to be an exciting start.”
Depleted Wales travel across the Irish Sea missing a host of star names, including captain Alun Wyn Jones and fellow Lions George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi.
Farrell dismissed the significance of the opposition’s selection issues.
“It’s all irrelevant to us,” he said. “Wales are a fantastic side, look at the history, it tells it all.
“It’s all about us, our preparation and our performance. We want to keep pushing the boundary as far as that’s concerned.
“That’s what we’ve been concentrating on, let’s see if we can perform on Saturday.”
Meanwhile, Farrell confirmed Ulster trio Robert Baloucoune, Nick Timoney and Michael Lowry will return to international duty on Sunday after being permitted to play for their province against Connacht on Friday.
“They’ll be back, they’re getting an opportunity to play on Friday and that’ll be great for them,” he said.