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Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne are Ireland's starting halfbacks.
Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne are Ireland's starting halfbacks.
Image: INPHO

This Ireland XV is very different to the one that visited Twickenham in February

Head coach Andy Farrell is looking to learn more about his squad.
Nov 19th 2020, 6:00 AM 10,694 20

AS HE DISCUSSED his team selection to face England yesterday, Andy Farrell repeatedly used the word ‘curious.’

Among other things Farrell praised James Ryan’s curiosity around becoming a stronger leader in this Ireland squad and highlighted how curious his own coaching staff are to see how this matchday 23 gets on in Twickenham.

It’s another way of telling us that Ireland are taking a bit of a leap into the unknown here. Curiosity killed the cat, but Farrell is hoping this selection brings out the dog in Ireland that some would argue has been missing over the last 18 months.

Nowhere is the sense of freshness more obvious than in Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne being the starting halfbacks. Ireland will face England without at least one of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton in their starting XV for the first time since 2011.

Murray and Sexton have been dominant figures in this Ireland team over the past decade but now Farrell’s men head into the toughest game on their autumn calendar without either of them in the starting side. 

Sexton would almost certainly have played if fit but Farrell has backed Gibson-Park ahead of Murray, who remains on the bench, after the Leinster man’s impressive performance against Wales last time out. 

Byrne gets just his second Ireland start, the first one having come on a disastrous day at Twickenham before last year’s World Cup. The 25-year-old will be hoping his pack can provide him with a far better platform this time around as he looks to show he is capable at this lofty level.

peter-omahony Peter O'Mahony remains part of the Ireland XV. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They deserve a chance to see how they handle a game and run a game on the big stage,” said Farrell of his halfbacks. “We’re as curious as they are in how they do that.

“Conor and Johnny had to get their experience somewhere, they had to be trusted to play in big games like this. When they started running the show and owning the show on the big occasion like this game is, it stands them in good stead for the future.”

Compare this Ireland XV to the one that started against New Zealand in last year’s World Cup quarter-final hammering and there are 10 personnel differences – Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, James Ryan, and Cian Healy being the common factors.

Even compared to the Six Nations defeat against England in February of this year, there are 10 personnel differences - Bundee Aki, O’Mahony, Stander, Ryan, and Healy being the commonalities.

Quinn Roux wasn’t in Ireland’s World Cup squad – his injury struggles essentially ruled him out of contention – but he retains his place in the second row alongside new captain James Ryan on Saturday.

“I thought he was excellent last week,” said Farrell. “He was really up for the game. Quinn has always worn his heart on his sleeve, but sometimes too much. Sometimes it gets a little bit too desperate but I thought he was very accurate in how he wanted to play the game last weekend.

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“When he got the opportunity to be physical, he did that in a controlled manner. That’s what we asked of him and he deserves another chance.”

Roux’s fondness for scrummaging and collisions could be useful against an English side that has plenty of firepower in those areas.

quinn-roux Quinn Roux starts again in the second row. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

22-year-old Caelan Doris is the obvious difference in the back row and starts in his best position of number eight with the potential to be a genuinely complete force in Test rugby. Saturday will be a big step in his development, as will also be the case for his fellow 22-year-old, Ronan Kelleher, who has been backed ahead of the more experienced Rob Herring. Kelleher is a superb athlete who could develop into a dominant one.

As with the out-half slot, injury has forced Farrell’s hand at tighthead but Andrew Porter has delivered in Tadhg Furlong’s absence and now gets his fourth consecutive Test start, with the support of hard-scrummaging Roux behind him. Given that Pascal Gaüzère awarded seven scrum penalties against Leinster in their defeat to Saracens back in September, the Frenchman’s decisions in this area are likely to be key.

In the backline, there’s a second cap for James Lowe – who is sure to face a tougher Test from England than what Wales threw at him – and a second start at fullback for the inexperienced Hugo Keenan, while Chris Farrell gets the kind of chance he has been desperate for, with Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw sidelined with injuries.

Ireland boss Farrell has picked experienced heads like Healy, O’Mahony, Stander, and Earls to support the new skipper, 24-year-old Ryan.

He will hope for a big impact from the likes of Iain Henderson, Will Connors, Murray, and Jacob Stockdale off the bench. 

The head coach insists he has taken confidence from what he has seen from his players.

“Their togetherness, their application towards the week, their curiousness in making sure there is no stone unturned regarding the detail. That all builds up, doesn’t it? When you look after yourself and your own back yard, it all builds up to confidence.”

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Murray Kinsella


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