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Gibson-Park gets starting chance as Farrell welcomes competition for Murray

The Ireland boss is also set to give Billy Burns a debut off the bench against Wales.

Gibson-Park is set for his first Test start on Friday.
Gibson-Park is set for his first Test start on Friday.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ONE OF THE things Stuart Lancaster and Leinster have had to work on with Jamison Gibson-Park is his mindset around starting games.

In New Zealand, the scrum-half had been more accustomed to playing a back-up role, first to Piri Weepu, Bryn Hall, and Jimmy Cowan at the Blues and then to TJ Perenara at the Hurricanes.

Gibson-Park arrived in Leinster in 2016 with 40 Super Rugby caps to his name but only seven of them had been starts.

“Typically, he would get 10 or 20 minutes at the end of a Super Rugby game,” says Leinster senior coach Lancaster.

“So it was trying to change that mindset that he could be a world-class starting scrum-half. He is quite quiet, he came from another country to live in Ireland, so it was about trying to find his voice and communicate more and not be afraid to show his point of difference.”

In Lancaster’s eyes, that point of difference is Gibson-Park’s vision in attack – “he’s a very instinctive player” – which plays into his kicking game. Leinster have worked hard on his speed of delivery from set-piece and rucks, making it another strength in his game.

Gibson-Park has been battling with Luke McGrath for the number nine shirt in Leinster in recent seasons and only recently has put himself into a position where some of the province’s fans would see him as first-choice. Of his 95 Leinster appearances so far, 48 have been starts.

The 28-year-old qualified to play for Ireland in the summer of 2019 after three years of residency and therefore could have come into the frame for last year’s World Cup, but he wasn’t involved until Farrell took over from Joe Schmidt as head coach.

Gibson-Park’s recent form has now seen him jump past McGrath, Kieran Marmion, and John Cooney in Farrell’s pecking order and the Ireland boss has handed him the number nine shirt for Friday’s clash with Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup.

The challenge is to deliver a performance that genuinely begins to pose a question of Conor Murray’s status as Ireland’s first choice, which he has essentially held since 2011.

conor-murray Murray has only come off the bench five times for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Munster man has to get used to a bench role this week, having started 78 of his 83 Tests for Ireland so far. No one has been able to displace Murray but now Gibson-Park gets a chance with his first Test start after two replacements appearances off the bench.

Farrell wants to see the Leinster man have a big game and put pressure on Murray.

“That’s what we’re all hoping for and deep down I’m sure Conor is as well,” says Farrell.

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“We’ve got good people here. They want competition, whether they admit it or not because that will make them better players and that’s how we move forward as a group.”

Farrell believes Gibson-Park brings something “different” to Murray and the rest of Ireland’s options at scrum-half. 

“He can play very quickly but, at the same time, without contradicting myself, he can play very calmly as well,” says Farrell of what he likes about Gibson-Park.

“His speed of ball is great, his skillset across the board with his hands and his kicking, his vision and his decision-making is pretty good.

“He’s a calming influence as well. Even though he’s playing quickly, he’s able to see many pictures and make good decisions along the way.”

Gibson-Park will have a familiar face and voice outside him in Leinster and Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, as Farrell ignores any temptation to give someone else a shot in the number 10 shirt on Friday.

However, there should be a Test debut for Ulster out-half Billy Burns off the bench, with the 26-year-old having been named in an Ireland matchday squad for the first time.

The England native qualifies to play for Ireland through his Cork-born grandfather. Having previously played for the England U18s and U20s, Burns joined Ulster from Gloucester in 2018 with strong ambitions of playing for Ireland.

billy-burns Billy Burns is set for his Ireland debut on Friday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The reality is that Sexton hasn’t been under any pressure for his Ireland place in recent years but, again, Farrell wants to see the likes of Burns and Ross Byrne closing the gap.

“You’ve got a world-class player who won World Player of the Year [in 2018] and who has been an integral part of Irish rugby throughout the ages in Johnny,” says Farrell.

“It’s always going to be hard to push Johnny through the years as you would expect with any world-class player.

“But, yeah, you see players perform under pressure in this type of environment. It’s not just about the performance at the weekend, but how they handle galvanising the team during the week is pretty important as well.

“The mental game is pretty important in the international game and 10s are right at the heart of that.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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