Whereas South Africa, France, Fiji and others have had statement wins in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup, not so the number one side in the world. By comparison to others, while Ireland have extended their winning run to 13 Tests and maintained their number one ranking, at the same time they’ve almost slipped into France 2023 under the radar.
So it is, perhaps, that Andy Farrell and his assistant coaches will expect their side to start making a few waves when their tournament kicks off this weekend. To that end, it seems they are likely to opt for a strong selection at around 1.30pm French time (12.30pm Irish time) on Thursday for Ireland’s opening Pool B game against Romania on Saturday in the Stade de Bordeaux (kick-off 3.30pm local time/2.30pm Irish).
If so, then it could also be a pointer toward retaining the bulk of this selection for their third game against reigning champions South Africa after delving into the rest of the 33-man squad a week hence against Tonga with a line-up akin to that which faced Samoa last Saturday week.
To some degree, it’s a case of needs must in giving both Johnny Sexton and Rónan Kelleher game time after they missed Ireland’s three warm-up games, while Farrell and co have had their hand forced by the non-availability of Dan Sheehan, Jack Conan and David Kilcoyne.
It therefore seems likely that either Kelleher or Rob Herring will start in the frontrow in between Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, with Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan packing down in the secondrow, as they did against England.
Similarly, with Conan sidelined, the familiar backrow of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris looks like being restored together again.
With Jamison Gibson-Park also due to return and partner Sexton, as against England, there’s a distinct possibility that Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose will be reunited in midfield, and also that James Lowe, Hugo Keenan and Mack Hansen will be in harness again in the back three.
Basically, save for the returning Sexton and Kelleher, and Doris restored at number eight, this would be the same starting XV which lined out for the second warm-up game against England.
Furthermore, those put in front of the media this week have nearly all been the established frontliners, with the exception of Joe McCarthy, who made an eye-catching impact as a replacement and may perhaps feature on the bench along with Ryan Baird.
As a consequence of opting for nine back five forwards in the 33-man squad, if there is even just one short-term injury, like Conan this week, such is the strain in this area it means all bar one of the others has to feature in the matchday squad.
IRELAND (possible): Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher/Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: Rob Herring/Rónan Kelleher, Jeremy Loughman, Finlay Bealham, Joe McCarthy, Ryan Baird, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne/Jack Crowley, Stuart McCloskey/Robbie Henshaw/Keith Earls/Jimmy O’Brien.