Andy Farrell opts for experienced line-up against Romania as Ireland get down to business

Rugby World Cup:Joe McCarthy the most eye-catching selection in the formidable starting XV chosen to face Romania

The majority of the 33-man Irish squad, 18 to be precise, are competing in their first Rugby World Cup, which may have contributed to the palpable excitement and giddiness in both Biarritz for the final warm-up game and their week settling into their base in Tours.

Yet not only has Andy Farrell tipped the balance of his starting line-up for Saturday’s opening Pool B game against Romania toward those who have played in World Cups before, but he also lauded the more experienced members of the squad. By the same token, something in the giddiness appears to have irked him.

In lauding experience, he noted that amid the euphoria of tournaments such as this, “If you’re a young, inexperienced type of player, you can get lost in the carnival atmosphere etc . . .

“But we have experience in abundance within our group that keeps the mind focused for everyone that’s involved because from what I have experienced as a player or as a coach, as an assistant coach, teams that do well are the ones that understand that it’s just about rugby, and nothing but the rugby.


“Of course, we embrace everything else that is going on around us when it’s our down-time, but when it gets to preparation and executing under pressure at the weekend, experience allows us to make sure how to go about our business.

“We are here now. We are in Bordeaux and that’s the theme over the next couple of days for sure.”

One of the newbies who has clearly impressed Farrell is the thrice-capped 22-year-old Joe McCarthy, who is the most eye-catching selection in the starting XV to face Romania at the Stade de Bordeaux on Saturday (kick-off 3.30pm French time/2.30pm Irish).

The other World Cup debutants in the starting line-up – Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Rob Herring and Caelan Doris – are fairly seasoned and have built up quite a body of work in the last four years or indeed longer.

The ripple effect of McCarthy’s inclusion sees Tadhg Beirne shift to ‘6′ and Peter O’Mahony to ‘7′, while the only alterations from the line-up against England see Johnny Sexton start for the first time in almost six months, with Rob Herring, McCarthy, Doris and Keith Earls – surprisingly picked ahead of Mack Hansen – all recalled.

Admittedly, there are four more prospective debutants off the bench in the front row trio and Jack Crowley, but even here there’s an abundance of savvy too, and the trio of four-time World Cup players are all involved, with Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton starting, and Conor Murray a replacement.

“It’s an advantage because of the youthfulness and the quality of those players is top drawer,” said Farrell of the 18 first-timers before again adding pointedly: “But they also need to understand what it is that they’re coming into.

“I said to you in the Samoa week going to Biarritz, the reason we went there is that there’s a lot of distraction that goes on, certainly when you’re in a hotel that’s on the beach.

“Some people handled that brilliantly, some people didn’t. Learning from those experiences is pretty important because you don’t get second chances after this in World Cups. You have to wait four more years – if you’re lucky enough. Understanding what it’s all about and getting down to business is where we’re at now at this stage.”

This selection had always seemed like something of a pointer toward the South African game in round three as well, and it still may well do. Maybe the more established back five in the pack will be restored en bloc, ie with Beirne in the secondrow, O’Mahony back to blindside and Josh van der Flier at openside.

Maybe Farrell and co don’t want to show their full hand to the Springboks just yet. But while McCarthy’s warm-up performances against Italy and off the bench against England had hinted that he might be in the ‘23′, if he shoots the lights out against the Romanians who knows?

Maybe this back five alignment in the pack is an option for the last 20 or 30 against the Boks to counter their bomb squad, with Jack Conan in the mix and Doris moving to ‘7′ another option.

While maintaining he was delighted with the win over Samoa, Farrell cannot have particularly enjoyed Ireland’s struggles against them. Certainly, he conceded that this team could do with the kind of statement win which the Springboks, France, Fiji and others have produced in the warm-up programme.

“I sure hope so. It’s certainly not a concern because obviously [they were] three warm-up games with different personnel and everyone is at different stages in the preseason. It’s all galvanised to one point and this is it: the start of the competition. So the performance should be one that’s a hell of a lot slicker. Let’s put it that way.”

Installing McCarthy in the second row is also a means of keeping selection edgy, with Farrell keen to avoid the mishaps of four years ago, when Ireland’s campaign was derailed by the loss to Japan before being put to the sword by a ruthless All Blacks in the quarter-finals.

Sexton was left out of the ‘23′ against Japan, a decision which looks even more curious four years on.

“Wow, there’s a lot that we learned from that 2019 World Cup,” said Sexton when asked yesterday. “A lot of it is all in hindsight. At the time we probably backed what we were doing. We were bullish about it but it’s always when you come off the back of bad results that you pick everything apart. Maybe we picked it apart too much.

“Personally, it was fine margins, really. Even if you go back to that New Zealand game – the opportunities that we had that we didn’t take that resulted in them scoring tries. Going for the corner, missing touch. Great bit of play by them,” said Sexton of Richie Mo’unga athletically keeping his own penalty to the corner in play.

“It’s just very small details where the game can get away from you and that’s the thing we’ve probably prepared for the last four years – to be able to take those big moments and react if they don’t go our way.”

Ireland v Romania: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), James Lowe (Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College)(captain), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf), Joe McCarthy (Leinster/Dublin University), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD, Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution), Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College). Replacements: Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Jeremy Loughman (Garryowen/Munster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers), Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen), Jack Crowley (Munster/Cork Constitution), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times