Dan Sheridan/INPHO Johnny Sexton could win his 100th Ireland cap on Saturday.

Farrell has intriguing options in Ireland's back row and back three

Johnny Sexton could win his 100th Ireland cap this weekend in Dublin.

UP UNTIL 2019, Ireland’s history against Japan told us that this was the ideal fixture for wholesale squad rotation and experimentation.

Seven Irish victories in the first seven games between the nations included scorelines like 78-9, 47-18, and 50-22.

The trend changed abruptly in Shizuoka at the 2019 World Cup when Jamie Joseph’s side won, rocking the tournament and leaving Irish rugby reeling. Joe Schmidt’s men didn’t recover.

Last July, the two sides met again in Dublin and there was another exciting performance from Japan even as they came up short on a 39-31 scoreline. Andy Farrell’s team were without 11 key players due to the Lions tour and the decision to rest Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, and Cian Healy, but the Japanese still underlined their ability.

All the signs are that the Brave Blossoms are here to stay as a competitive Test nation, with Joseph and his creative assistant coach Tony Brown aiming to achieve something even more special at the 2023 World Cup. 

However, with all of Farrell’s frontliners back this autumn, Ireland have been installed as 13-point favourites ahead of Saturday’s rematch at the Aviva Stadium.

The expectation is that Ireland will kick-start their season with victory but Farrell is sure to be wary of the threat Japan’s invention, handling skills, and sheer pace will pose. Joseph’s men have been in camp for several months ahead of this autumn campaign and warmed up for the visit to Dublin with a 32-23 defeat to Australia two weekends ago.

They had maul struggles that day but showed more of their incisive attack, which has been trend-setting under Brown’s coaching.

timothy-lafaele-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try ©INPHO Japan's attack was excellent again in July. ©INPHO

And so, Farrell is likely to confirm a strong Ireland selection when he names his matchday 23 on Thursday.

Johnny Sexton is set to win his 100th Ireland cap as skipper on what would be his first-ever appearance against Japan, with the 36-year-old having shown good form at the start of this season.

It wouldn’t be a great surprise to see Andrew Porter’s recent switch to the loosehead side of the front row repeated at Test level, potentially allowing him and Tadhg Furlong to team up in the same starting XV.

Rob Herring has been first-choice at hooker under Farrell so far thanks to his excellent lineout throwing, work-rate at the breakdown, and low error count, but Rónan Kelleher is putting more pressure on after Lions involvement over the summer. The uncapped Dan Sheehan is an athletic prospect too.

In the second row, Farrell has James Ryan, Iain Henderson, and Tadhg Beirne all fit to select from so will have a strong combination whichever way he goes.

The back row will be most interesting of all. Ireland have three excellent number eights in Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, and Gavin Coombes, meaning we may see one of them wearing the number six shirt.

One senses that Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony have been battling it out for the third starting slot, although Beirne could also feature in this area of the team. Farrell’s decision will have revolved around what exactly he wants from his team in terms of game plan. Nick Timoney provides another dynamic option.

At scrum-half, Jamison Gibson-Park could get the nod given Conor Murray’s major lack of game time so far this season, although Craig Casey would love a second Test start after a run of games in the Munster number nine shirt.

andy-farrell Dan Sheridan / INPHO Farrell at Ireland training this week. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell’s most experienced centre pairing would be Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose – Robbie Henshaw is still sidelined – even if he must be tempted to give Ciarán Frawley his debut in a game where his playmaking abilities would be useful. The Irish midfield will need to be sharp against the creativity of Ryoto Nakamura and Timothy Lafaele.

Hugo Keenan is the incumbent at fullback and remains in excellent form as he continues to get better, but the wing selections will be intriguing given that Farrell has plenty of scope for mixing things up.

Keith Earls is a senior player and a calming presence from the right wing, although Jordan Larmour will be keen to reassert himself at this level. 

Ulsterman Robert Baloucoune is only recently back from injury but looks ready to burst through as a regular Test starter. Andrew Conway was excellent on his most recent outing against the US when he played on the left wing.

Simon Zebo is a familiar returning face and would relish ending his Test hiatus of more than four years, while James Lowe returns to the international fold having learned lots in his first campaign last season. With Jacob Stockdale missing, Zebo or Lowe would also provide a very useful left-footed kicking option.

Possible Ireland XV: Hugo Keenan; Robert Baloucoune, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Simon Zebo; Johnny Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

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