Andy Farrell has backed Conor Murray as his starting scrum-half to face Scotland this Saturday as doing what is right for Ireland.
Ireland’s new head coach resisted a strong groundswell of public and media opinion that Ulster’s John Cooney should have been handed the Test number nine shirt for the opening game of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations in Dublin this weekend given his red-hot form for his province this season.
Murray, by contrast, has been below his world-class best in recent months for both Munster and Ireland and although his form has picked up in recent weeks, it was widely believed Farrell would drop one of the backbones of Ireland’s success during predecessor Joe Schmidt’s six-year tenure as head coach.
Yet while the new boss made six changes, one of them positional, to Schmidt’s final team selection for the October 19 World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand, Murray was not one of the half-dozen to fall by the wayside.
"We watch and we see how the group's taking shape and I think first and foremost, Conor has been great, he's been great around the group, he's been in good form, he's in very determined mood, and certainly in a leadership role, he's very experienced," Farrell said on Tuesday at the conclusion of a six-day training camp on the Algarve.
"I understand all the chatter around John. He's a good player but in our squad, we have three good scrum-halves and I feel for Luke (McGrath), he's the one who misses out.
"John's in fine form. He had a few days that he missed through HIA (Head Injury Assessment) protocols, and John has been supporting Conor in that role. We've got to do what's right for the team for this game.
"I've got to do what's right for the team to perform, and that's my job.
"Competition for places is going to be our friend, some people are afraid of that but we want to use it to increase our competitive edge."
Farrell did make a form-based selection in his back row by handing a Test debut to Leinster’s 21-year-old Caelan Doris, whose inclusion at No.8 sees CJ Stander moved to openside flanker in place of his Munster skipper Peter O’Mahony, who drops to the bench.
The head coach praised Doris’s Test-readiness following a brilliant season for his province and also O’Mahony’s professionalism in dealing with his demotion.
"We believe that any youngster coming onto the scene at Test level, can they be themselves... He has been himself, the training has been physical and competitive and you can see his traits all over that,” Farrell said of Doris, “he doesn't want to come out second best and that's pretty impressive in the kid.
"Pete, he typifies our group, he's been absolutely sensational since I gave him the news yesterday. He comes from good stock and since he heard yesterday, it's been all about the team, he's been sensational today in training as well.”
With World Cup skipper Rory Best now retired, fly-half Johnny Sexton has been handed the captaincy on a campaign-by-campaign basis and he leads a starting XV, 13 of whom started the opening bonus-point pool win over the Scots in Yokohama last September 22.
The newcomers to that mix are both in the back three with Jordan Larmour starting at full-back in place of Rob Kearney, who was omitted from Farrell’s squad, and right wing Andrew Conway, selected ahead of Keith Earls, whose training has been limited by a knee injury.