James Lowe is part of the Ireland team. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Formidable Irish team gives insight into Farrell's World Cup strategy

The Ireland boss has included many of his Grand Slam front-liners against Romania.

NO MESSING AROUND here. Ireland have gone with a formidable selection for their World Cup opener against Romania. Andy Farrell’s matchday 23 certainly backs up their 62-point favouritism for this clash in Bordeaux.

It remains to be seen if Ireland are quite that dominant against the Romanians. The heat in Bordeaux will be a challenge, with temperatures of up to 37°C expected for Saturday afternoon’s clash, but this is an Irish team brimming with Grand Slam-winning quality.

To be fair, it’s impossible to pick a bad team from Ireland’s 33-man squad at this World Cup.

Still, the return of the talismanic Johnny Sexton is welcome. He hasn’t played since March due to a groin injury and his ban, so there’s no doubt that he’s fizzing to get back into action. At 38, he remains the key man for Ireland. One has to think that if Farrell’s men are to make history at this World Cup, keeping Sexton fit is essential. They are their slick best when Sexton is on the pitch.

His selection for this weekend also suggests that Sexton might not start against Tonga in Ireland’s second Pool B clash. Ross Byrne, who is not involved this weekend, is surely lined up for that one.

Indeed, it’s quite likely that Farrell plans to rotate many of his front-liners out of the starting XV for that meeting with the Tongans, preserving them for what will be a brutal battle against South Africa a week later.

That apparent strategy comes with a level of risk but Tonga haven’t been in particularly strong form in their warm-up games, despite some star additions in recent times thanks to the loosening of the eligibility laws. Ireland could end up facing the Tongans with a team similar to the one that took on Samoa in their final warm-up fixture.

In truth, Ireland weren’t great that day but Farrell has faith in his wider squad and it would be a surprise if everyone isn’t involved at some point in this World Cup. It will be a 33-man effort. 

andy-farrell Ireland boss Andy Farrell. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell can also pick an experienced core in that possible starting XV against Tonga by bringing Iain Henderson, Conor Murray, Josh van der Flier, and Robbie Henshaw into the starting XV. It certainly won’t be a weak Ireland team in their second game.

Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey, Byrne, Stuart McCloskey, Mack Hansen, and Jimmy O’Brien are not involved against Romania, while Dave Kilcoyne, Jack Conan, and Dan Sheehan are still recovering from injuries. It had been expected that Hansen would actually play this weekend but he’s not included and Ireland haven’t mentioned any injury for the Connacht wing.

As for Saturday in sunny Bordeaux, there’s no reason why Ireland shouldn’t have one of their biggest World Cup wins. The Romanians have been poor in their three warm-up games and will need to go to a different level if they’re to hang in there against the number-one-ranked team in the world.

Farrell would love to see a ruthless performance from his team, with no let-up even in the sweltering conditions. The multi-option Irish attack should be able to do lots of damage against a Romanian defence that hasn’t been connected in recent times. Forwards coach Paul O’Connell will expect better from his charges at the lineout and maul, while scrum coach John Fogarty is likely to send this Irish pack out with intent to win penalties and inflict damage.

When you look at other fixtures over the weekend, this is a relatively low-key game for Ireland to start their campaign with, but it’s likely to be a lively occasion given how many Irish fans are flocking into Bordeaux. There are far worse places to take in a World Cup game.

Sexton’s return is timely, as is the renewal of his halfback combination with Jamison Gibson-Park. It’s the same one that looks sure to start against the Springboks, injury permitting. Ditto the midfield pairing of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, even if Farrell has other strong options in midfield.

The forward pack for this weekend involves a few tweaks from what has been seen as the first-choice selection. Sheehan is still missing with his foot injury but is expected to be back for the Springboks game, if not the Tonga clash. In the meantime, Rob Herring is an outstanding hooker and the return of Rónan Kelleher on the bench is timely.

It’s easy to forget just how good Kelleher can be. It’s not long ago that people were suggesting he could be the best hooker in the world, but injuries slowed him up and Sheehan took over. Now it’s time for Kelleher to get back on that upward trajectory.

garry-ringrose-and-joe-mccarthy Joe McCarthy lifts Garry Ringrose. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There’s also another big chance for Joe McCarthy in the Irish second row. It’s smart to pair him with the experienced James Ryan and it will be exciting to see McCarthy getting unleashed. The youngest member of this Ireland squad at the age of 22, his energy is boundless. Even watching Ireland training, McCarthy seems to simply bound around the place and word is that he never stops.

He’s also a massive man and his power is now being best utilized in the carry, tackle, and ruck. It’s understood that the tighthead props love having McCarthy behind them in the scrum given how much power he generates. His maul work and discipline continue to improve too.

With McCarthy starting, it’s interesting to see Tadhg Beirne drop into the back row, where he last started for Ireland in the 2021 Six Nations. But his class on the blindside flank is more than proven and we know how much it can free Beirne up to roam for breakdown poaches and feature on the ball in wider spaces.

With Conan still injured, Farrell’s back row options were slightly limited for this game and so it is that Peter O’Mahony moves into the number seven shirt. He’s obviously renowned as a blindside flanker but O’Mahony is adaptable. He had two starts for Ireland at openside in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup, has moved there during games since, and has also started there for Munster as recently as last season.

Caelan Doris will be among the biggest threats to Romania from number eight. The Irish bench is a nice blend of experience and fresher faces, with Jack Crowley set for another opportunity to impress whenever he replaces Sexton.  

10 players in Ireland’s matchday 23 will make their World Cup debuts in Bordeaux and the excitement from the group is palpable.

Romania could be in for a tough afternoon on Saturday.

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