Ireland will welcome back Keith Earls and Rob Kearney to the back three for Saturday’s Pool A clash with Japan, but there will be no Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, or Bundee Aki in the starting XV.
Joe Schmidt stuck to his modus operandi of not selecting players who failed to train fully during the week’s first training session, which accounts for fly-half Sexton’s absence from the starting line-up, with Jack Carty handed the number 10 shirt after an assured turn off the bench for the final quarter of the opening-round victory over Scotland last Sunday.
The head coach has erred on the side of caution with Aki and O’Mahony, however, both of whom failed Head Injury Assessments in that game. The centre and the flanker each passed the mandatory HIA 2 and 3 tests that follow an HIA 1 failure and returned to training on Tuesday at the Yumeria Grounds in Shizuoka Prefecture but Schmidt has in this instance rewarded the men that replaced them during the first half of Ireland’s resounding 27-3 win.
Chris Farrell gets the nod at inside centre instead of Aki following an impressive shift off the bench in midfield alongside Garry Ringrose, while Jack Conan slots into the back row at No.8 as CJ Stander switches from there to O’Mahony’s regular berth at blindside flanker, replicating the rejig that followed the vice captain’s departure in Yokohama and the back row which started the final summer Test against Wales in Dublin on September 7.
Despite the aforementioned absences, this is not an Ireland team that reflects any complacency about the challenge posed by Japan. Far from it, for though the omission of Sexton, Aki, and O’Mahony represents a loss of 166 caps, there is actually a net gain on the total number of caps in the line-up, albeit one more cap at 698 compared with the team that started against Scotland.
Farrell’s inclusion at number 12 is a nod to his rapid acclimatisation to switching from his more regular position at outside centre for both Munster and Ireland. He started on the inside against Italy on August 10 in partnership with Garry Ringrose and reprised the combination to great effect after Aki was withdrawn on 21 minutes.
“I was a 12 pretty much throughout growing up,” Farrell said on Tuesday. “In Ulster, I always played 12. Then I went to France and played more at 13 (with Grenoble). I played a bit at 12 over there as well… but as a 12 or 13, you’ve got to know each role and you’ve got to understand what the 12 and the 13 want from each other.”
Finding an understanding with a fellow centre, be it Aki, Ringrose, or the currently injured Robbie Henshaw has come naturally to Farrell.
“Despite centre being quite a competitive area — and we’ve had a lot of injuries there, whether it be short-term or long-term — no matter what combination goes in, we seem to connect pretty well.
“We all know each other’s roles so well that we feed off each other and we’re very comfortable no matter who’s there.”
Schmidt’s recall of both Earls (78 caps) and Kearney (92 caps) brings a wealth of experience to the back three, yet their inclusion on the right wing and at full-back respectively comes at the expense of Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour, both of whom played exceptionally well in difficult conditions under the high ball last weekend. They will undoubtedly feel they did enough to retain their places.
Earls, for one, recognised the pair’s contribution to Ireland’s cause, saying of Munster team-mate Conway: “He is a world-class player. There is no doubt about it. So is Jordo (Larmour).
“I think the back three last weekend were brilliant. The three of them (including Jacob Stockdale) making their debut in a World Cup.
“As I said, I think it’s a good thing for all of us and a good thing for the coaches that no-one owns the jersey anymore. It’s about giving the coaches a headache and keeping each other on the top of our games.”
There is still a chance one of either Conway or Larmour, as well as Sexton and O’Mahony, will see some action this Saturday in Shizuoka, with Ireland delaying naming the replacements bench until later this morning.
Either way, this is a team that means business against a Japan side that clearly fancies its chances on home soil, with Scotland vulnerable following their failure against Ireland.
Schmidt has seen his second-string see off the Brave Blossoms in the same stadium two years ago while his frontline stars were with the Lions in New Zealand, but this is a very different proposition, and he is leaving nothing to chance with this selection.
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
14. Keith Earls (Munster)
13. Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
12. Chris Farrell (Munster)
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
10. Jack Carty (Connacht)
9. Conor Murray (Munster)
1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
2. Rory Best (Ulster) (C)
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster)
5. James Ryan (Leinster)
6. CJ Stander (Munster)
7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster)
8. Jack Conan (Leinster)