Johnny Sexton will return to the Ireland starting line-up on Thursday as Joe Schmidt’s team bids to reignite their World Cup Pool A campaign against Russia with a much-changed XV.
Sexton, 34, is one of 11 new faces in the Ireland team which must pick up the pieces following last Saturday’s shock defeat to hosts Japan in Shizuoka. Jordi Murphy is handed the No 8 jersey for the fifth time in his 29-cap Test career having only linked up with the squad yesterday following his arrival in Tokyo on Sunday as a back-row replacement for the injured Jack Conan.
As before last week’s team announcement, head coach Schmidt was delaying the naming of his bench and making contingencies for last-minute changes following Ireland’s training session today, Conan having fractured his foot in the corresponding work-out last Thursday.
Yet, centre Chris Farrell was the only player to miss out through injury having sustained a concussion late on against Japan.
It is also understood that fellow centre Robbie Henshaw has recovered from the hamstring injury that has kept him out of Ireland’s first two games but is being held in reserve for the final pool fixture against Samoa in Fukuoka on October 12.
That means a third successive start in midfield for outside centre Garry Ringrose, who is reunited with Bundee Aki after the number 12 was rested for the Japan game.
Ringrose is one of four survivors from the 19-12 loss to the Brave Blossoms with full-back Rob Kearney and Keith Earls retained in the back three, though the latter switches wings from right to left to accommodate Munster team-mate Andrew Conway.
Fly-half Sexton will start alongside Leinster half-back Luke McGrath as Conor Murray is rested having started the bonus-point win over Scotland and also against Japan.
The forward pack features an all-Munster front five as Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan form the front row, backed up by a second-row pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn.
Peter O’Mahony switches from blindside flanker to openside in a remodelled back-row that sees Rhys Ruddock handed the number six jersey with Murphy backed by CJ Stander, the man he replaces in the starting line-up, to hit the ground running following his late arrival to the party.
“Jordi always fits right in,” Stander said. “He’s been a part of this team even before me so we’re looking forward to getting him back in.
“He’s going to bring a good balance in our back-row. He’s someone who understands the game, someone who will bring a lot of energy. His ball-carrying and his defence are very good so we’re looking forward to having him in there.”
Facing the media on Sunday, Sexton had declared himself fit again following the quad strain suffered during the Scotland win that kept him out of the Japan encounter. While his stand-in Jack Carty sparked Ireland’s fast start against the home side, Sexton’s vast experience and leadership qualities could perhaps have made the difference when Japan grew steadily into the game and as the men in green lost their way.
He and his cohorts have been handed the opportunity to get Ireland back on track at this World Cup but Sexton dismissed any idea that he and his teammates had to prove a point to the doubters in the wake of their dismal performance.
“That’s not how we really think,” the fly-half said. “At one stage, we won 23 out of 26 games and we had lots of doubters, so you’re always going to have doubters in this game. But the people that you have to look at… ultimately, you want to do everyone proud.
“You want to make the people of Ireland proud, you want to make your family watching at home proud. Ultimately, the guys that you’re closest to are your teammates and they’re at the guys you have to look at, at the end of the day.”
There is no doubt that Ireland will take the field under the roof of the Kobe Misaki Stadium on Thursday fired up to atone for last weekend and Sexton outlined how that anger will be channelled.
“The same way we always do. With a five-day turnaround, it’s probably a good thing this week. Guys want to get on the pitch as soon as possible.
“A week is a long time in sport, how high we were last week to how low we were today, and we want to get back on the other side of that as soon as possible. We can take the hurt into this week but it’s going to stay with us until the end of this tournament.”