Joe Schmidt has called on Ross Byrne to make the most of his opportunity and stake a claim to a place in Ireland’s World Cup squad after handing the fly-half his first Test start against England at Twickenham on Saturday.
With first-choice number 10 Johnny Sexton still playing catch-up in his pre-tournament preparations after an early summer thumb injury and heir apparent Joey Carbery set to miss the rest of the build-up to Japan as he recovers from an ankle injury suffered against Italy 12 days ago, the Ireland management has thrown down the gauntlet to the other fly-halves in the extended training squad, Leinster’s Byrne and Connacht’s Jack Carty, to grab their chances on the biggest stages.
With summer Tests against England and twice against Wales, away then home, in successive weeks, the stages do not come much bigger as Ireland bid to hit the ground running in their World Cup opener against Scotland in Yokohama on September 22.
Byrne, 24, starts for the first time for Ireland as he picks up his third cap having debuted against Italy in Chicago last November and has plenty of experience around him in a strong starting XV named by head coach Schmidt in Portugal today before the squad broke camp after a week of warm-weather training at the Quinta do Lago Campus on the Algarve.
Rory Best will captain the side at Twickenham in a first-choice front row alongside props Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong. Munster lock Jean Kleyn is handed his second cap after a promising debut against Italy in a second row with Iain Henderson while Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander were named in the back row.
Rob Kearney starts at full-back with Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale on the wings and Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose form the midfield partnership while scrum-half Conor Murray is another frontliner getting his first action of the summer this weekend alongside Byrne in the half-backs.
Carty, who replaced Cabery against Italy for the final 30 minutes is part of a bench also featuring Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Tadgh Beirne, Luke McGrath and Andrew Conway.
Schmidt spoke of the big opportunity presented to Byrne and his readiness for the challenge ahead.
"He's trained really well and it's not his debut, he's had time with us before so that we've got a lot of confidence in him anyway and I think he built his way through the season,” the Ireland boss said.
"I thought he was maybe not as impressive as Jack (Carty) early in the season, and I think those two have become really important to us.
"Joey has done well this week. Johnny, he's fine, but he missed a bit of time with his thumb so he's a little bit behind and we know how well he plays for us, we don't feel that he needs a lot of time with the experience that he's got.
"So, for us, the guys that need the time are probably Ross and Jack and they've got the opportunity to do that this weekend, that they'll share a bit of time, I'd say, in the middle.
"They were always really important because it is such a specialist position, but they probably wouldn't have had this opportunity as much.
"Joey, especially on the back of his 50 minutes against Italy, I thought he was as good as I've seen him. I thought he controlled the game really well, he's always a threat individually running and carrying the ball, but I just thought his control of the game was very, very good.
"So for him, the frustration is not being able to get that opportunity to continue that, it's probably a frustration for us as well but it's somebody else's opportunity and I know that Ross has trained well this week and is very, very motivated to do the job for us on Saturday.”
Schmidt added that he had been impressed with Kleyn’s introduction to life in the Ireland camp having only qualified on residency on the Thursday before the Italy game.
"The thing is we gave him some things to work on from last time and we want to see if those can materialise on Saturday. Because he's so new in, we felt that it was a priority to give him the time. Again, it is a fickle balance at the moment.
"Dev (Toner) knows our game inside out so needed less of the time, Iain Henderson has just trained so well this week, we're looking forward to seeing him out there and it also gives Tadhg Beirne the opportunity to be that cover-all back row, second row.
"I'm not saying he (Beirne) is not good enough to start in either of those positions but he's nice security, having him covering all five of those back five positions, albeit seven we'd probably need to mix and match somebody but he can cover six, No.8 or five."
IRELAND: R Kearney (UCD/Leinster); J Larmour (St Mary’s College/Leinster), G Ringrose (UCD/Leinster), B Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), J Stockdale (Lurgan/Ulster); R Byrne (UCD/Leinster), C Murray (Garryowen/Munster); C Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), R Best (Banbridge/Ulster), T Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster); I Henderson (Queens University/Ulster), J Kleyn (Munster); P O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), J van der Flier (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster).
Replacements: S Cronin (St Mary’s College/Leinster), J McGrath (St Marys College/Leinster), A Porter (UCD/Leinster), D Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), T Beirne (Lansdowne/Munster), L McGrath (UCD/Leinster), J Carty (Buccaneers/Connacht), A Conway (Garryowen/Munster).