Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway have been backed to counter Scotland’s kicking attack in Sunday’s crucial Rugby World Cup Pool A clash after Ireland decided not to risk Rob Kearney and Keith Earls.
Grand Slam winner Larmour, 22, will make his World Cup debut at the Yokohama International Stadium on Sunday as Ireland’s starting full-back, with Conway making his tournament bow on the right wing after head coach Joe Schmidt named his matchday squad to the face their Six Nations rivals this morning.
It may be a pivotal fixture in the context of a pool also including hosts Japan, Samoa and Russia but injuries to an experienced back-three duo with 180 Test appearances between them were considered not worth risking on the opening weekend of the 2019 World Cup.
Earls arrived in Japan with a knee issue that forced his withdrawal 52 minutes into his only appearance of the pre-season, the final warm-up against Wales in Dublin 13 days ago, while Kearney was in excellent form in that game as he picked up cap number 92 but reported calf tightness on Monday of this week when Ireland trained in Chiba.
It is understood the pair may have been deployed had this been a quarter-final but not in this instance and they are expected to be available for Ireland’s second game, against Japan in Shizuoka tomorrow week. So too Joey Carbery, who despite being talked up as fighting fit following an ankle injury in the opening summer test against Italy on August 10 is understood to have been kept out of the firing line as Johnny Sexton’s back-up, with the Munster fly-half being given extra time to reach peak fitness, despite his star turn against the Scots off the bench in the Six Nations victory at Murrayfield earlier this year. In Carbery’s stead, Jack Carty will provide fly-half cover.
Robbie Henshaw’s hamstring injury, suffered during Ireland’s first training session on Japanese soil last Saturday, had forced an early decision on his non-participation and it is Garry Ringrose who will be given the outside centre role in a midfield tandem with Bundee Aki on the inside.
They complement a first-choice half-back partnership in Conor Murray and Sexton behind a tried and tested pack. Iain Henderson starts in the second row alongside James Ryan in front of a back-row trio of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander at No.8.
Rory Best captains the side from hooker with Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong on either side as the skipper embarks on his final campaign before retirement by picking up his 121st Ireland cap at the age of 37.
It is the other end of the experience spectrum in this Ireland side that will face most scrutiny from the Scots with Finn Russell and company expected to test Schmidt’s back-three selections with an array of attacking questions from the air and along the deck in potentially slippery conditions. Torrential rain appears to have disappeared from the weather forecasts for late Sunday afternoon but the ball is set to remain difficult to handle. Ireland skills coach Richie Murphy has every confidence that the qualities so admired in Kearney and Earls under the high ball run deep through this World Cup squad, which is a good job because fly-half Russell has the talents to unlock defences with the boot and will be only too willing to exploit weaknesses in the wet weather that is expected.
“Yeah, very much so,” Murphy agreed on Wednesday. “His short kicking game is spot on. His ability to put the ball through along the ground, he’s got a real soft touch on his chip kick and his ability to kick to the edges on kick-passes and stuff like that is really good.
“So, the ball on the ground is going to be quite slippy and wet, so trying to tidy that up is going to be difficult along the line and we’ll have to be very aware about that.
“It’s about how you set up and where you leave the space. There’s always going to be space somewhere so you’ve got to just make sure that you limit the options for them as much as possible.
“We picked 31 players that we feel can all do the job for us. If, for instance, Rob wasn’t there, we’d be very happy with Jordan, he’s got a lot of big-game experience. Bomber (Conway) has played back there as well, so if it is a case that Rob’s not there, we’d be very happy with the guys.
“They understand the systems, they’ve been working in them for three-and-a-half years, Jordan since he’s come into the squad.”
Sexton is undoubtedly comfortable in the set-up and the conditions as he prepares to attack his third World Cup campaign at the age of 34. He may have only played once this summer following a thumb injury in early pre-season but Murphy detects a star pupil in a great place, mentally and physically, despite the extraordinarily high expectations placed upon his shoulders.
“The one thing I would say about that is he’s learned to deal with that really well over the last while.
“He seems quite calm, very focused and massively up for what’s going to come up over the next while.
“Is he in the best place I’ve ever seen him? I’ve known him for quite a long time now, maybe over 10 years, so I’m really happy with where he’s at. “I’m not saying he’s the best he’s ever been but I think he’s in a really good place.” And, for clarification, Murphy added: “I’m not saying he’s not the best he’s ever been either, by the way.”
Backs: 15 J Larmour (Leinster), 14 A Conway (Munster), 13 G Ringrose (Leinster), 12 B Aki (Connacht), 11 J Stockdale (Ulster), 10 J Sexton (Leinster), 9 C Murray (Munster).
Forwards: 1 C Healy (Leinster), 2 R Best (Ulster) Captain, 3 T Furlong (Leinster), 4 I Henderson (Ulster), 5 J Ryan (Leinster), 6 P O’Mahony (Munster), 7 J van der Flier (Leinster), 8 CJ Stander (Munster)
Replacements: N Scannell (Munster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), A Porter (Leinster), T Beirne (Munster), J Conan (Leinster), L McGrath (Leinster), J Carty (Connacht), C Farrell (Munster).