RugbyTeam Announcement

Ryan Baird and Robbie Henshaw included in strong Ireland side for Grand Slam decider

Despite injury scares there are just three changes from win over Scotland with Gibson-Park coming in at scrumhalf

Despite losing five players through injury in last week’s 22-7 win over Scotland, Irish head coach Andy Farrell has been able to name a strong team for Saturday’s tilt at a first Grand Slam to be won in Dublin, against England at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 5pm, live on Virgin Media TV and ITV).

As expected, there are just three changes to the starting line-up, with Ryan Baird and Robbie Henshaw coming in for the unlucky duo of Iain Henderson and Garry Ringrose, while Jamison Gibson-Park has been named as the starting scrumhalf, with Conor Murray switching to the bench.

Henshaw will be making his first start of any kind since the Autumn Series game against Fiji, when forced off with a hamstring strain inside five minutes, with last week’s 14-minute appearance off the bench his first outing since then. Gibson-Park was making his first appearance of this year’s Six Nations as a replacement last Sunday but looked as sharp as ever.

While Henshaw especially and Gibson-Park have vast big-game experience, Baird’s promotion for just his third Test start makes this the biggest game of the 23-year-old’s career thus far.


In a boost for Ireland’s attempt to win a 15th outright title and just a fourth Grand Slam in 128 years, both Dan Sheehan and Caelan Doris have been passed fit to play in an otherwise unchanged starting XV. Furthermore, seven of this pack were ever-present starters in the series win over the All Blacks.

Alas for him, Ronan Kelleher has been ruled out due to the shoulder injury he sustained last Sunday in Murrayfield, meaning Rob Herring returns to the match-day squad as backup hooker, as he was in the opening win over Wales before his start against France was cut short due to a head injury.

The knock-on effect of Henderson missing out, after recently working his way back into first the match-day 23 and then the team, had led to a recall for his Ulster team-mate Kieran Treadwell to the bench.

The 27-year-old Treadwell was an ever-present in the series win over New Zealand as a replacement before his run of six games in succession ended when he was omitted following the win over Fiji last November.

As forecast, the ripple effect of Ringrose’s absence and Henshaw’s promotion has also resulted in a recall to the match-day squad for the versatile Jimmy O’Brien.

After making his debut as a replacement at outside centre when replacing the injured Stuart McCloskey against South Africa, the 26-year-old O’Brien played at fullback against Fiji and on the wing in the victory over Australia before winning his fourth cap against Italy, again as a replacement at outside centre.

“It’s a strong side, happy with it. Fit and raring to go,” admitted Farrell contentedly, but added: “I’m gutted for people like Garry and Iain Henderson who missed out on the last weekend. But the lads who come in get their chance to put their best foot forward.

“We’re happy with where we are at, training went well yesterday, captain’s run tomorrow, and fingers crossed everyone comes through for the game nice and healthy.”

Farrell made it clear that his team’s mentality going into this game was to ignore all the outside noise about the prize at stake.

“Like any game, it’s another game. It’s the basics of the game, but being the best version of ourselves is absolutely the key. What people think we’re chasing is a trophy. We’re not, we’re chasing being the best version of ourselves when it matters most. We all know it matters, but performing under that type of pressure is the next step for us.”

In this, he refuted that all the pressure was on his team.

“No there’s not. It’s a game. It’s a game of rugby, and we always challenge ourselves, and that’s something we do pretty well. The week’s been pretty abrasive if I’m honest in regards to what we need to be better at and where we need to take our game, and the expectation of making sure our best is saved to last is key for us.”

Yet, by the same token, Farrell also maintained: “It’s not any other game. We’d be stupid to think that. It’s another challenge for us, being at our best. The trophy’s not a factor, it’s us performing that matters the most.”

Having been born, reared, coached and played in England, not least having coached and played alongside Steve Borthwick and been an assistant England coach for four years, Farrell has a pretty good idea how much Saturday’s opponents will be playing for pride after last week’s 53-10 shellacking by a rampant France.

Pinpointing the comment by Ellis Genge that England will come out swinging, Farrell added:

“Of course 100 per cent they will and they’re going to be formidable opponents for us at the weekend, they are. I know the quality of player that they’ve got, and watching them also in the Six Nations and in patches we’ve seen in their attacking game when it has been flowing etc, they’re as dangerous as anyone in the competition.

“So, I think they’ll have the emotional edge, obviously. There’s no better tonic, is there than getting back out there and playing again and putting a few things right.

“You’d expect them to be way better than their best so far because I know that’s what is in them, I know the fight that’s in the players and the coaching staff.

“I suppose in many ways this is the perfect weekend for them so we’re expecting to be at their best and that’s good for us, again it allows us to challenge ourselves.

He also knows the English captain pretty well, and his son Owen has been restored at outhalf. But in match weeks when opposing each other the Irish head coach said the two had an unwritten rule.

“I’ll have a conversation, yeah. We don’t ask questions that put the other person in too much of a predicament.

“I know that he’s travelling over today. He’s not staying too far from our house actually. The grandkids are coming over today as well, so we’ll be trying to poach them into our captain’s run tomorrow and see if we can squeeze them to cheer for Ireland. We’ll see how that goes.”

The English captain was not best pleased by Farrell giving his eldest of two sons an Irish jersey.

“I’ve told him to bring it, yeah,” confirmed the Irish head coach with a wry grin. “So we’ll see what he wears on Saturday.”

IRELAND: 15 Hugo Keenan; 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe; 10 Johnny Sexton (capt), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park; 1 Andrew Porter, 2 Dan Sheehan, 3 Tadhg Furlong; 4 Ryan Baird, 5 James Ryan; 6 Peter O’Mahony, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Caelan Doris. Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien.

ENGLAND: 15 Freddie Steward; 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Henry Arundell; 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Jack van Poortvliet; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler; 4 Maro Itoje, 5 David Ribbans; 6 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Jack Willis, 8 Alex Dombrandt. Replacements: Jack Walker, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Nick Isiekwe, Ben Curry, Alex Mitchell, Marcus Smith, Joe Marchant.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times