Tadhg Beirne’s role as a potential replacement flanker against Italy at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon underlines how this game is just as important for the bench as it is for Ireland’s starters.
With Munster team-mate Jean Kleyn handed his Ireland debut, starting in second-row in partnership with the experienced Devin Toner, and fellow lock/flanker Iain Henderson named alongside him as a replacement, the battle for final squad places on the plane to Japan next month could hardly have been brought into sharper focus for Beirne this weekend.
The 27-year-old former Leinster and Scarlets forward enjoyed a brilliant debut season with Munster until a knee injury struck in late January, ruling him out of the early stages of the Six Nations. Beirne managed only one appearance for Ireland in the championship — starting in the final-round defeat to champions Wales in Cardiff — and the Kildare man will feel need to make the most of any time he gets from the bench today as he advances his claims for a World Cup debut.
James Ryan, Toner, and Henderson are ahead of him in the second-row pecking order and though Ultan Dillane was released from Ireland’s training squad earlier this week, Kleyn still poses a threat, and Beirne will be understandably keen to showcase his additional versatility as a blindside flanker against the Azzurri.
“He has been throwing himself in and out of the second row and the back row, so we’ll see how the game goes,” Andy Farrell said of Beirne on Thursday before addressing his assets in the back row.
Beirne is not the only benchwarmer who will be itching to see some game time, with only loosehead prop Cian Healy, Henderson, and scrum-half Kieran Marmion seemingly assured of a place in the final 31-man squad heading to Japan for the big kick-off against pool rivals Scotland in Yokohama on September 22.
With Joey Carbery starting at fly-half and looking to cement his position as the number-two playmaker behind Johnny Sexton, Connacht’s Jack Carty has been handed the first chance to join them, getting the nod for the replacement’s role ahead of Leinster’s Ross Byrne.
Niall Scannell backs up Rob Herring at hooker and his presence on the bench will add pressure to the starter, who appears to be the current fourth choice in the position, with Rory Best and Sean Cronin rested this weekend.
There may also be a squeeze at tighthead prop, where John Ryan stands ready to replace Andrew Porter as the battle to back up Tadhg Furlong continues, with Finlay Bealham waiting in the wings, while Munster full-back Mike Haley has the chance of a Test debut having been named as the outside back’s replacement.