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Johnny Sexton captains Ireland again on Saturday.
Johnny Sexton captains Ireland again on Saturday.

Sexton starts for Ireland again but Carbery hasn't been denied chances

There are outside concerns about the out-half’s welfare and Ireland’s depth.
Jul 7th 2022, 10:57 AM 24,986 42

Updated Jul 7th 2022, 12:01 PM

FOR IRELAND TO beat the All Blacks, they need to play close to a perfect game. 

Pretty much every Irish player needs to be at least an 8/10 or 9/10 in terms of their performance levels.

Even then, it might not be enough – as we saw in 2013. And even with a high level of performance, the margins can still be very fine – as we saw last November in Dublin. 

Last weekend, Ireland didn’t get anywhere near perfect. There were lots of good bits, for sure. But there were too many errors and inaccuracies, too many invitations for the All Blacks to show their ruthless edge.

Farrell is now backing virtually the same team to have polished off those imperfections in the space of a week at the end of a long season. He has resisted any temptation to shuffle the deck for the second Test, making just one change to his starting XV.

Keith Earls didn’t underperform last weekend but it’s almost certain that Mack Hansen would have started on the right wing had he not been ruled out with Covid. The Connacht man is available again and so he slots into the number 14 shirt.

He’s the kind of player that Farrell likes: technically sound and hard-working with an unpredictable slant to his game. He’s in the ‘untidy‘ mould the Ireland boss believes makes Ireland harder to defend against. Facing the All Blacks in New Zealand as he wins just his fifth cap is a huge occasion, but Hansen comes across as a fairly unflappable fella.

Otherwise, Farrell has gone for complete continuity. To be fair, he didn’t have many options in the tight five, where injuries to Rónan Kelleher and Iain Henderson mean there aren’t difficult decisions to make. Farrell will be keen for the returning Rob Herring and Finlay Bealham to make an impact off the bench, while the hope is that Cian Healy is genuinely fit to feature this weekend having not been used at all last time out.

caelan-doris-with-brodie-retallick Ireland will hope to get Caelan Doris more involved. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There is no change to the back row as Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, and Caelan Doris go again. Van der Flier was superb last weekend and O’Mahony had some crucial contributions too, but Ireland need to get Doris more involved this time around.

He only had seven touches of the ball in Test one, the fewest of any of the Irish starting forwards. We know how much damage he can do with his ball-carrying, passing, and offloading. This weekend would be the ideal time for Doris to dominate a top-tier Test.

Hugo Keenan and James Lowe are straightforward picks in the back three, while Farrell has gone for Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in midfield again despite the claims of Bundee Aki, who remains on the bench. Ringrose made several uncharacteristic errors in the first Test but he has been a key man for Ireland and should bounce back on Saturday.

Jamison Gibson-Park was always likely to go again at number nine despite his own flurry of mistakes in the first half last weekend. His style of play is now central to what Farrell’s Ireland do and the head coach will continue to back him to make instinctive decisions.

But it’s the man in the number 10 shirt who has attracted most attention in this team. Such is the way with Johnny Sexton. There are two outside concerns about having the 36-year-old in the starting XV again this weekend: his welfare and Ireland’s depth.

On the first count, Sexton and Ireland are convinced that there’s no reason he shouldn’t play. World Rugby’s Head Injury Assessment process says he was not concussed last weekend despite failing HIA1. Sexton passed HIA2 and HIA3, so by World Rugby’s protocols, was not concussed and can feature again on Saturday.

Many of us – this writer included – would err on the side of caution and have Sexton sit this weekend out, but Ireland simply see him as a player who has been deemed fully fit by independent doctors. With a huge Test match ahead, they don’t see why they wouldn’t pick him.

On the second count and moving completely away from head injury concerns, the same thought applies for Farrell and co. – why wouldn’t Ireland pick their captain and talisman to start when they are targeting their first-ever win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil and when they are fighting to keep this Test series alive?

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irelands-joey-carbery-just-misses-out-on-a-try Joey Carbery is on the Ireland bench for Saturday.

The calls for Joey Carbery to start have been widespread once again. There’s no doubt it would be a good experience for him with the World Cup looming next year but it’s worth remembering that he has featured quite a bit for Ireland recently.

Carbery has played in all 11 of Ireland’s last 11 Tests since the summer of 2021, starting five of them against Japan, USA, Argentina, France, and Italy.

He has played 455 of the available 880 minutes of game time across that run of 11 games. It’s hardly a picture of someone not getting exposure at Test level, even if plenty of that game time was down to Sexton being unavailable. 

One also has to ask bluntly if Carbery truly deserves to be Ireland’s starting out-half. In all honesty, he has not been performing at the level Sexton has. He’s 26 now and while injuries have certainly stunted his progress, he’s not a kid. The onus is on him to displace Sexton.

For supporters and media, it’s easy to clamour for more exposure for back-up options and there’s certainly sense in players like Carbery getting the number of minutes he has for Ireland over the past year.

But starting for Ireland in a massive Test against the All Blacks down in New Zealand with a Test series on the line is something that needs to be earned by being better than your rivals for the shirt.

Carbery is likely to have some involvement off the bench this Saturday and he is an important part of the 23 again, but Sexton starting gives Ireland a greater chance of getting close to that near-perfect performance they need to make history in New Zealand.

They’re underdogs, of course, but winning this second Test would be a massive step for Farrell’s team towards the World Cup too.

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Murray Kinsella

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