Andy Farrell has made six changes to Ireland's starting XV for Saturday's penultimate 2022 Six Nations game against England at Twickenham (kick-off 4.45pm).
The fit again quartet of Andrew Conway, Bundee Aki, Johnny Sexton and James Ryan are all restored, as is Hugo Keenan at fullback, while Cian Healy comes in for the injured Andrew Porter.
This means that Peter O'Mahony is retained in the backrow and Caelan Doris remains at number '8', with Jack Conan on the bench, where he is joined by Iain Henderson, who missed the Italian game a fortnight ago after contracting Covid-19, and the recalled Conor Murray. Both Joey Carbery and Robbie Henshaw return to the replacements.
After an element of experimentation against Italy, not least in affording Michael Lowry his debut to interrupt Keenan's run of 18 successive Tests since his debut in October 2020, a title eliminator with the auld enemy at HQ demands that Farrell and his assistants pick what they believe to be their strongest line-up.
In the heel of the hunt, this is the bulk of the team which started out this year's Six Nations with that 29-7 bonus point win over Wales. The exceptions are James Lowe being back in the mix after missing the first two rounds with a hamstring injury, and so Mack Hansen misses out, while Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher have since been sidelined. The one exception not related to injuries is O'Mahony coming into the backrow and Doris reverting to number '8'.
The Doris-Josh van der Flier-Conan triumvirate has been the first-choice starting loose forward combination for both Leinster and Ireland this season up to and including Paris, where Conan was replaced after 52 minutes, with O'Mahony coming on and Doris moving to '8'.
Farrell and co then opted to retain the backrow which finished that game against Italy, and especially in that first quarter when it was 15-v-15, Doris looked the best player on the pitch with his footwork, lines of running, strength in contact and skills. There’s no doubt too that like any other backrower, Doris has more touches on the ball, carries and involvements at ‘8’ than at blindside.
"It's always difficult. We had some tough decisions to make but we feel the balance of the team is a good one,” said Farrell, adding: “We've got an experienced bench, an explosive bench, a bench that can come on and add to our performance. That's pretty important also.”
Addressing the decision to retain O’Mahony and leave Conan on the bench, the Irish head coach explained: "They're both great players but we just think the balance is right for this game.
"Pete's in good form, not just physically but he's a good emotional leader for us as well. Leadership is a big part of every team performance. We obviously know what Pete brings in terms of the set-piece and the breakdown, but the rest of his game has come on an absolute treat. His attack stuff has really stepped up.
"I think he played really well against Italy. I also thought that Jack played really well coming off the bench and had a big impact, so the balance is right for this group."
Farrell admitted that it had been a close call for the starting loosehead but intimated that Healy’s familiarity with an all-Leinster frontrow had been a factor.
“Cian has obviously got experience and is champing at the bit for an opportunity, as is Killer (Kilcoyne). We feel that the combination at set-piece time is pretty important. With Cian there, he'll go hard and David will add impact when he comes on.”
As for Aki’s recall ahead of Henshaw at inside centre, Farrell said of the Connacht man: “He's been playing really well. The big aspects of his game have come on strong. He's obviously known for his aggressive ball carrying style etc but the delicacies of his game have really come on as well. We think he deserves a game. Having said that, obviously Robbie has a little bit of a lack of game-time but he's good to go, he's fully fit and raring to come on and add to the team.”
In response to Eddie Jones installing Ireland as favourites and describing them as the most cohesive team in the world, unsurprisingly Farrell maintained: “Doesn't bother me whatsoever. I don't see what it does for or against you, it's just about us preparing properly.
“I also know that Eddie has said plenty of times in the past that praise makes you weak. We make sure that we take care of our own house and prepare properly over the coming days and be ready to perform.”
Ireland have lost on their last three visits to Twickenham since sealing the Grand Slam in 2018 and asked what he wanted to see for this Irish team Farrell said: “One that is themselves from the off and is relentless in the pursuit of getting back on track all the time, can take the rough with the smooth and make sure that we manage our way through difficult circumstances.
"It's a fact that's going to happen at Twickenham but learning through previous mistakes that we've made when we've been there and being ourselves for the full 80 minutes.”
IRELAND: Keenan; Conway, Ringrose, Aki, Lowe; Sexton (capt), Gibson-Park; Healy, Sheehan, Furlong, Beirne, Ryan, O'Mahony, van der Flier, Doris. Replacements: Herring, Kilcoyne, Bealham, Henderson, Conan, Murray, Carbery, Henshaw.