Ireland forced to stick with experience as Leinster dominate team v Japan

12 players from Leinster will start with Peter O'Mahony the only Cork player in the match-day squad
Ireland forced to stick with experience as Leinster dominate team v Japan

Johnny Sexton with scrum coach John Fogarty. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

IRELAND entertain the exciting and incredibly dangerous Japan this Saturday in their opening Autumn International at the Aviva Stadium, with a strong side expected to be sent out to avenge the 19-12 defeat to the Brave Blossoms at the 2019 World Cup.

Andy Farrell’s side were due to play the USA last weekend, but that match got cancelled due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. It is safe to assume that this game had been earmarked in terms of blooding new players and doing a bit of experimentation. To lose that game will certainly have limited the opportunities for many of Ireland’s young guns to impress in this Autumn Series.

You can see that in the team selection for this weekend, there is only one uncapped player in the match-day squad of 23, Dan Sheehan, with 12 Leinster players starting and captain Johnny Sexton in line for his 100th appearance. Munster's Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery and Keith Earls are on a bench that also features Cian Healy and Ian Henderson.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD), Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), James Lowe (Leinster), Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster), Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf), Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD), Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere).

Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne), Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers), Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy), Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen), Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf), Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster). 

Josh van der Flier and Iain Henderson at training. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Josh van der Flier and Iain Henderson at training. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

A few years ago a home tie against Japan would have been viewed as another chance to send out a second-string side, but the defeat in Fukuroi at the 2019 World Cup has changed the way Ireland views Japanese Rugby forever, much like how Ireland stopped turning its nose up at Argentina after losing to them in Lens at the 1999 World Cup.

Japan’s invention, speed and flair lit up that World Cup, with Ireland being the biggest scalp they took en route to a quarter-final exit to eventual champions South Africa.

As recently as July the two sides met when Ireland managed to see off the Brave Blossoms by 39-31 in a high-scoring contest. In that encounter, Ireland had been guilty of falling off a lot of tackles, which is simply asking for trouble when facing Japan. You simply have to get them to ground early or they will cut you to pieces with their brilliant running and offloading game.

It is worth noting that Jamie Joseph has had his entire squad in camp for over a month now, with them getting a more than useful warm-up tie under their belt two weeks ago when they lost 32-23 to a resurgent Australian side.

The Irish coaching staff will have taken note of the joy Australia had up front, yet despite this pack dominance, Australia were only four points ahead in the 79th minute when Connal McInerney went over from a late maul.

The last time Japan were this prepared was back at the 2019 World Cup, and we all know how that worked out. Ireland better beware.

One of the most intriguing aspects around the Irish team for the next year or two is bound to be the battle for the number eight shirt given Ireland’s apparent strength here at present. Munster fans will undoubtedly be of the opinion that Gavin Coombes is head and shoulders above every other 8 in the country right now, but the reality will be that the Dublin-based media, and crucially Farrell, probably see it differently.

In fairness to Jack Conan, he performed impressively for the Lions in the series defeat to South Africa in the summer, so he will be seen as the incumbent right now, while Caelan Doris was looking set to nail down the jersey for years to come prior to having head injury issues earlier this year. They both are fantastic options for Farrell, although neither would possess Coombes’ sheer power as a ball carrier. To have one at 8 and one at 6, with the option of springing the other off the bench should be the way forward for Ireland.

The sight of Sexton trotting out for a deserved 100th cap will no doubt garner a lot of negative attention, especially when you consider that neither of the other two out-halves in the current Ireland squad look viable options based on recent fitness and form.

Carbery has not pulled up any trees for Munster since his return from a long-term ankle injury in February, while the much-hyped Harry Byrne has looked extremely brittle in his senior appearances for Leinster to date.

It is ironic that Connacht’s Jack Carty is the form number 10 in the country right now, given that he was pretty much the scapegoat for that loss to Japan in 2019, as he was pulling the strings that day. He hasn’t really got a look in since.

Like it or not, Sexton remains Ireland’s best fly-half option as we head into the Autumn Internationals, but the succession planning or even the planning to have a decent back-up in case Sexton breaks down again, has not been great, with Carty, and even Munster’s Ben Healy deserving of opportunities, if selections were being based on current form.

If Ireland dominate the set-pieces on Saturday they will win, but they will be fully aware that a failure to do so could lead to a long 80 minutes.

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