Andy Farrell says game time the key consideration in Ireland selection

Side to face Japan in autumn opener includes 12 Leinster players in starting line-up

Johnny Sexton will make his 100th Test appearance for Ireland. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Autumn internationals: Ireland v Japan

Kick-off: 1pm, Saturday. Venue: Aviva Stadium. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 12.15pm. On TV: Live on RTÉ2.

The presence of a dozen Leinster players in Ireland’s starting XV for Saturday’s opening game of the autumn series was one of the more eye-catching features of Andy Farrell’s first selection of the season.

However, Ireland’s head coach has maintained this is a mere byproduct of a side picked on what evidence has been available thus far in an unusually limited build-up. Game time, he said, was more relevant.


“I’ve been on record before saying I would never do the squad a disservice by looking at who I’m picking in terms of who they play for. It’s certainly not fair to the team or the squad and 100 per cent not fair to an individual. We pick the team on merit, on what is right, and where the squad is at, at that point in time.”

While the 23-year-old uncapped Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan is poised to become Ireland’s 23rd debutant in Farrell’s 17th match in charge, the head coach appreciates that some might have wanted to see the inclusion of players such as Robert Baloucoune and Gavin Coombes, although it transpires the latter has been unable to train with a non Covid-related virus this week.

“I get that. Everyone wants to see the next cab on the rank and the next exciting youngster but Gavin has been ill all week so that has ruled him out. He has had a virus and not been able to train with us.

“Rob Baloucoune has got tremendous potential but he has been injured for a good while and he is just finding his feet. He has come back into the squad after being involved in the summer. Some lads find their feet straight away, like Dan Sheehan, and some take a little bit more time. You bring in an extended squad for the autumn nations series and that will be great for some of them lads.”

Injuries and Leinster’s coterie of hookers had restricted Sheehan to just three starts for his province prior to this season, but he has availed of Rónan Kelleher’s delayed post-Lions return to showcase his explosive ball-carrying in four games this season, including two starts.

With Kelleher starting alongside Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong in the frontrow, the 6’3”, 111kg Sheehan has edged out Rob Herring from the matchday squad in part also because of the impression he’s made in training.

“I’ve seen what you hope to see when you work with somebody for the first time. Somebody who has come into a daunting environment and rolled his sleeves up and said: ‘Right, I’m going to show I belong here’ and he has definitely done that.”

James Lowe, Caelan Doris and Iain Henderson during Ireland training. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The matchday 23 features 11 past or recent Lions, with Tadhg Beirne’s superior game time contributing to his selection among seven Leinster forwards ahead of Iain Henderson, who is on the bench, and ditto Jamison Gibson-Park ahead of Conor Murray.

This was also a factor in Andrew Conway and James Lowe being chosen on the wings. As with the frontrow and backrow, there’s an all-Leinster backrow of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan

In addition to Cian Healy, Murray is joined by two more former Lions and Munster team-mates among an experienced bench, notwithstanding Sheehan, in Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls.

On the eve of Johnny Sexton’s 100th Irish Test, Farrell again described his captain as a one-in-a-generation player. “How many of those are about? How many of those are coming through. It’s pretty rare in any sport. I think that says it all.”

Nor did Farrell share the apparent concerns out there that this Irish team still remain so reliant upon Sexton.

“Johnny is a world-class player so why would I worry about that? What do we want to see from Joey [Carbery] and Harry [Byrne]? We want to see them pushing Johnny. Johnny isn’t just going to stand to the side and say, ‘there you guys, off you go and take over now’. We want those guys and other tens to challenge Johnny and knock him off his perch. That’s what competition is all about in a squad.”

Similarly, Farrell is not going to concern himself overtly now about the possibility of Sexton not making it to the next World Cup.

“No, we’re not worried about that at all. If Johnny is healthy and competing and playing at the top of his game, again, we want people to knock him off his perch. I have absolutely no doubt that if that does happen that the likes of Joey and Harry and Jack Carty, Billy Burns, whoever that may be, it has to make them a better player anyway if they want the shirt. If they don’t want the shirt, then that won’t happen.

“He’s not going to give it up easily,” added Farrell, “and it’s not just Johnny. It’s the other guys in the squad, that’s what you want. You don’t want to just hand something over to someone that doesn’t deserve it. That’s not a squad.”

James Lowe has earned his selection in part because of the way he has re-evaluated his preparation and his game, according to Farrell.

“I think it was a little bit of a shock for him first time up with the pressures and the scrutiny of international rugby. He has gone away, been very diligent and wanted to work on aspects of his game that we have asked him to, and there are improvements there. He gets his chance because of all that, to show us that he is the right man for the job. He is in great nick, he has lost a bit of weight, he has the bit between his teeth.”

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).

Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Conor Murray (Munster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster).