Ireland v South Africa: Conor Murray handed starting berth on occasion of 100th cap

Robert Baloucoune and Garry Ringrose the other changes to side that won third Test against New Zealand

Despite a plethora of injury concerns when the initial 37-man squad was named for Ireland’s Bank of Ireland Nations Series, Andy Farrell has retained all but three of the starting line-up and matchday 23 from their last outing in the third Test win over the All Blacks in July for Saturday’s encounter with world champions South Africa at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 5.30pm, live on Virgin Media TV and Amazon Prime).

As forecast in The Irish Times, Conor Murray will both lead the team out and start at scrumhalf on the day he wins his 100th cap for his country, so becoming Ireland’s eighth centurion of all time.

Murray will renew his long-established partnership with Johnny Sexton, while the fit-again Jamison Gibson-Park, who has yet to play a minute’s rugby since that third Test, is on the bench in a change of roles for the two scrumhalves. But Hugo Keenan will start despite also being denied any game time this season through injuries.

The two other changes to the starting XV are both enforced, as Robert Baloucoune is named on the wing and Garry Ringrose returns at outside centre after being ruled out of the summer’s decider, in place of the injured James Lowe and suspended Bundee Aki.


This is a huge opportunity for the 25-year-old Baloucoune, who was unluckily ruled out of the expedition to New Zealand on the eve of the tour with a hamstring injury. The Enniskillen speedster will be winning his third cap, having scored on his debut against the USA in July 2021 and started in the win over Argentina a year ago.

With Tadhg Furlong, Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier all having shaken off knocks, Farrell has been able to name the same pack which started all three Tests against the All Blacks.

Furthermore, he has also retained the same five forward replacements on the bench from that third Test as well as Joey Carbery. In the absence of the injured Keith Earls, also as forecast Stuart McCloskey has been named at No 23 and so is in line to win his seventh cap.

“Calculated,” is how Farrell described the selections of both Keenan and Gibson-Park for their season reappearances.

“Calculated is probably the right way. When you weigh everything up, the personnel that you’ve got, the injuries and then people coming back into camp. It almost goes back to zero for us, how they apply themselves, the confidence not just in themselves but how it transfers to their team-mates. Each individual is completely different and that’s what makes the world goes around.

“When you talk about someone like Hugo, we could talk all day about him really, but he is the fittest in the team. We will start there, but he is the most diligent as far as his work in the team as well and that is not just across his own work but everyone else’s as well. Some people can hit the ground running and be very good. Other people take three or four weeks and we believe Hugo is in a good space to start on Saturday.”

Of Baloucoune, the Irish head coach said: “He offers something a bit different, that’s about it. It takes all sorts and everyone manages their careers at different stages. Rob has been in camp four or five times and it has been stop-start with injuries etc and then he has gone back to learn his trade.

“We would have loved for him to come to New Zealand. A trip like that would have been priceless for him and one of the reasons we put him on the Emerging Ireland tour was for the experience.

“When you have an opportunity like this to see how Rob handles the big occasion, to be able to do that in a good side is pretty important as well. We feel he is ready, that he can offer something different. You look at different ends of the scale, this is how Conor’s career started,” Farrell said of Ireland’s latest centurion.

“It’s up to Rob and his team-mates helping him to grab the opportunity and show what he is about at the top level.”

Farrell admitted it has been tough for McCloskey to have so little opportunities in recent times, adding it has “been tough enough for me too as he is a great player,” and pointing to the presence of Robbie Henshaw, Ringrose and Aki.

“The position is strongly contested with three world-class players who are great together. To be able to see Stu thriving in one environment and sending him home on a Wednesday has been tough but his hunger has got greater. I’m looking forward to him showing himself on Saturday. He plays really strong, has got a chance to show his team-mates he is real deal and push on and perform really well and give us a big headache for Six Nations.”

He repeated his assertion that the consequences of this game will be felt more in the present and immediate future than when it comes to the World Cup meeting in Paris a year hence.

“The lessons learned are going to be vast for both sides, win or lose. I suppose the team that loses will learn a little bit more and know which direction they want to go, not just game plan-wise but player-wise. That’s why I think this is priceless for both teams as a match-up. It’s exciting for what’s down the line but in the here and now it is good as well.”

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Robert Baloucoune (Ulster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Mack Hansen (Connacht); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Conor Murray (Munster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); James Ryan (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times