Robbie Henshaw will belatedly begin his 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign against Samoa on Saturday after Ireland named a team close to full strength in their bid to qualify for the quarter-finals.
Only flanker Peter O’Mahony and full-back Rob Kearney are missing from what is thought to be head coach Joe Schmidt’s first-choice starting XV as Henshaw gets his first opportunity since pulling up with a hamstring injury during Ireland’s very first training session in Japan on September 14.
Henshaw will start at outside centre in place of Garry Ringrose, who has played all 240 minutes of Ireland’s campaign so far, and is reunited with former Connacht midfield partner Bundee Aki as Schmidt makes 11 changes from the team which started the 35-0 bonus-point victory over Russia under the roof in Kobe last Thursday.
The selection was due to be confirmed in Fukuoka at an 8am Irish time team announcement following Ireland’s final training session but if everyone comes through that unscathed, Johnny Sexton will get another start at fly-half, having missed the defeat to Japan on September 28 and his half-back partnership with scrum-half Conor Murray will be resumed after the Munster number nine sat out the Russia game as an unused replacement.
Keith Earls is another survivor from the last game and reverts to the right-wing berth he occupied against Japan, having been switched to the left against the Russians. Earls will form a back three with Jacob Stockdale, returning to his customary left-wing position, and Jordan Larmour replacing Kearney at full-back after the veteran’s training time was understood to have been managed earlier in the week.
O’Mahony was expected to be named on the bench at today’s team announcement, having also had his workload managed with the quarter-finals in mind.
Of course, Ireland still have to confirm their passage to the last eight and need a bonus-point victory over the Samoans at Hakatanomori Stadium in Fukuoka on Saturday to make certain of their progress.
Samoa have been beaten by Ireland’s main rivals Japan and Scotland, who are due to meet in Yokohama on Sunday, and Schmidt is taking no chances with his selection this weekend as he looks to extend his Ireland tenure into the knockout stages before stepping down at the end of the tournament.
O’Mahony’s regular place at blindside flanker is taken by Munster team-mate Tadhg Beirne rather than Rhys Ruddock, who was man of the match in Kobe seven days ago starting at number six.
Beirne started in the second row against Russia and now switches to the back row, otherwise it is a first-choice forward pack with CJ Stander at No.8 and Josh van der Flier returning at openside, with O’Mahony having filled in there last week against Russia.
There is a tried and tested front row of Cian Healy, captain Rory Best, and Tadhg Furlong.
While packing down behind them in the second row are Iain Henderson and James Ryan in place of Beirne and Jean Kleyn.
Ryan’s return after sitting out the Russian game brings another leader into the pack, the 23-year-old revealing last weekend that he had become a part of the squad’s leadership group.
Ulster lock Henderson insists Ireland have cranked up preparations this week.
“You see everyone putting in a bit of extra time, be it in video analysis or a bit of extra time in the gym before we hit the pitch, just to make sure everybody is as right and as nailed-on as possible for the weekend.
“You can feel that all having built throughout the weeks. All we can hope for now is that it comes to fruition over the weekend.”
Tournament hosts Japan edged towards a first-ever World Cup quarter-final by sneaking a last-gasp bonus point in their 38-19 win over Samoa.
British and Irish Lions lock Henderson insisted that Samoa’s determination to play out from their own 22 might have cost them that fourth try against Japan— but leaves them a very dangerous proposition this weekend.
“We saw Samoa try to play right at the death and then Japan ended up getting the bonus point,” said second row Henderson.
“That gives you an idea of what Samoa are trying to do: they’re looking to play from anywhere at any time and that’s something we have to be fully aware of.
“If you look at the way Japan started against us, I think that’s a good indication of what Samoa are going to try and do.
“We know, we’ve reviewed quite a few of their players already and we know in their pack and their whole backline there are threats all over the pitch.
“We have to be very wary of that and not try to do anything out of the ordinary for us.”