Gerry Thornley: Opportunity knocks for World Cup hopefuls

Warm-up clash against Italy a chance to press their case for a place in 31-man squad

As expected, opportunity knocks for a clutch of players named in Ireland’s opening World Cup warm-up game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (kick-off 2pm, live on RTÉ).

But as this is also likely to be the only match for many of them to state their case for inclusion in the 31-man squad before it is finalised, it comes with a fair degree of pressure and scrutiny.

No matter how it is dressed up, such an experimental-looking selection makes this game look, feel and smell like a trial match for individuals above all else, as much as it is a chance to develop collective momentum and cohesion.

That said, it is their ability to achieve a strong collective – despite this being the first game of the season and with so many untried combinations – which will best serve their World Cup hopes individually.


The starting front row are all vying for spots in the squad, while the starting back row are conceivably competing for one or two places in the 31

Garry Ringrose is the only survivor from the starting XV that pitched up last time out for Wales' Grand Slam coronation in Cardiff and, at first glance, he looks to be one of a select handful in this line-up who are nailed on for Japan. The others are Jordan Larmour, Joey Carbery and Devin Toner, along with Cian Healy and Iain Henderson on the bench.

Others will assuredly join them in the final 31-man squad, but how many will be determined to some degree by how they hit the ground running tomorrow.

After unveiling the team at their Carton House base, defence coach Andy Farrell said their primary objective was to achieve cohesion.

“Obviously in the back of their minds they want to put their best foot forward, everyone wants to do that. Everyone wants to get on that plane.

“How they manage their own expectations of being at their best but also apply that to how we want to play in our team strategy? On top of that, how they are able to adapt and see the game for what it is? Because, let’s make no bones about it, this is a big game for this team that takes the field for the first time this season and they’ll be feeling the pressure. They’ve got to be able to deal with that, play the game for what it is but also play the game the Ireland way.”

Two days after becoming eligible on the three-year residency ruling, Jean Kleyn is given his debut and thus a chance to showcase his old school second-row physicality in the trenches. Meanwhile, Tadhg Beirne – who scored a hat-trick on his Test debut against Italy in Chicago last November – has the chance to showcase his versatility given he is named as back row cover.

More confident

The starting front row are all vying for spots in the squad, while the starting back row are conceivably competing for one or two places in the 31 given the other four loose forwards in the squad appear to be probable selections.

Luke McGrath, partnered by Joey Carbery and the wingers Andrew Conway and Dave Kearney, are all in stiff competition for places too, while Jack Carty and another potential debutant, Mike Haley, will need to make the most of their minutes on the pitch as well. Interestingly too, Chris Farrell starts at inside centre.

For Kearney it is a first Test since the Fijian game in November 2017 and for Tommy O’Donnell, who was ruled out of the last World Cup when suffering a dislocated hip in the first warm-up game against Wales, this will be a first Test since the 2016 Six Nations.

Rhys Ruddock captains a side featuring eight of the XV from that 54-7 win over Italy last November. Having scored a hat-trick on his first Test start in that game, Larmour has been told to "be yourself" in his fourth Test start at full-back.

“He’s got a bit of experience behind him now, Jordan. He’s certainly more confident in the group and in the processes that we demand of each other. Like any young kid, you would expect that to take a little bit of time but the youthful great players are able to deal with the pressure and be themselves when it comes to Test match day. We’re expecting Jordan to back himself at the weekend.”

If getting a handle on this Irish selection will be tricky for the Italian video analysts, then ditto the other way around.

Conor O'Shea has retained only three of the starting XV which signed off Six Nations with a 25-14 defeat by France in Rome in their last outing. Edoardo Padovani, who moves from wing to full-back, Angelo Esposito, left to right wing and Marco Zanon, the 21-year-old centre who made an eye-catching Test debut that day, are the trio concerned.

Furthermore, only two of this XV featured in Ireland's 54-7 win in Chicago, namely loosehead prop Nicola Quaglio and outhalf Carlo Canna.

O’Shea has opted for several club combinations in a home-based XV featuring a Zebre back row, half-backs and back three, along with a Benetton second row and midfield.

The highly regarded 21-year-old tight-head Marco Riccioni makes his Test debut, while the bench is notable for the inclusion of the uncapped Gloucester scrumhalf Callum Braley, former Leinster and Irish Under-20 outhalf Ian McKinley and, happily, Matteo Minozzi.

The exciting 23-year-old fullback, who was shortlisted for Player of the Tournament after scoring tries in four successive games in the 2018 Six Nations, makes a welcome return after suffering a badly damaged knee 18 minutes into last season’s Pro14 opener away to the Southern Kings in August of last year.

IRELAND (v Italy, Aviva stadium, Saturday, 2pm): Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Chris Farrell (Munster), Dave Kearney (Leinster); Joey Carbery (Munster), Luke McGrath (Leinster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Andrew Porter (Leinster); Devin Toner (Leinster), Jean Kleyn (Munster); Rhys Ruddock (Leinster, capt), Tommy O'Donnell (Munster), Jordi Murphy (Ulster).

Replacements: Niall Scannell (Munster), Cian Healy (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Jack Carty (Connacht), Mike Haley (Munster).

ITALY: Edoardo Padovani (Zebre); Angelo Esposito (Zebre), Tomasso Benvenuti (Benetton), Marco Zanon (Benetton), Giulio Besigni (Zebre); Carlo Canna (Zebre), Giuglielmo Palazzani (Zebre); Nicola Quaglio (Benetton), Olivero Fabiani (Zebre), Marco Riccioni (Benetton); Allessandro Zanni (Benetton), Dean Budd (Benetton, capt); Giovanni Licata (Zebre), Maxime Mbanda (Zebre), Jimmy Tuivaiti (Zebre).
Replacements: Federico Zani (Benetton), Andrea Lovotti (Zebre), Simone Ferrari (Benetton), Marco Lazzardni (Benetton), Renato Giammarioli (Zebre), Calum Bradley (Gloucester), Ian McKinley (Benetton),  Mateo Minozzi (Wasps).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times