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New centurion Conor Murray set for centre stage on his landmark day

Munster man looks set to start at scrumhalf against South Africa with Gibson-Park on the bench while Keenan poised to start at fullback

Conor Murray is set to both lead the Irish team out and start at scrumhalf against South Africa next Saturday at the Aviva Stadium (5.30pm) when winning his 100th cap for Ireland.

It doesn’t always apply, witness Ronan O’Gara winning his 100th cap off the bench, and Jamison Gibson-Park’s lack of any game time so far this season is a consideration, but Murray’s landmark day is perhaps also a factor in him being named in the starting line-up against the world champions.

If it comes to pass when Andy Farrell announces the side this afternoon then Murray will make his first start for Ireland since the 53-7 win over Argentina in last year’s Nations Series and his second since the win over England at home in the 2021 Six Nations.

Having won his first cap in a World Cup warm-up match off the bench against France in Bordeaux in August 2011, Murray will become only the eighth man to win 100 caps for Ireland when renewing his long-established partnership with captain Johnny Sexton.


Gibson-Park is in line to be named on the bench and, despite also not having played a minute this season, Hugo Keenan is set to be named at fullback for his first game since the series finale in New Zealand last July. Keenan thus extends his run of 17 starts in Ireland’s last 18 Tests, the exception being when rested against Italy in last season’s Six Nations.

Indeed, despite all manner of injury concerns in the build-up to Ireland’s first Test of the new season, and word is there remain a couple more before the team is formally announced, it is conceivable that Farrell could name a starting XV showing only two changes from that deciding third Test, 32-22 win over the All Blacks in Wellington last July.

In the absence of the injured James Lowe and suspended Bundee Aki, Farrell and his assistant coaches were always going to be forced into at least two changes anyway, and a couple of options have seemingly been under consideration in their preparations at the IRFU’s HPC.

One of them, and perhaps the likelier, is that Robert Baloucoune comes in on the right wing, with Mack Hansen switching across to the left, and Garry Ringrose returning to partner Robbie Henshaw in midfield as he reverts to inside centre.

The other would see Stuart McCloskey start at inside centre, with Henshaw remaining at outside centre and Ringrose, who was ruled out of the third Test following the head-on-head hit by replacement prop Angus Ta’avao’s which saw the latter red-carded, returning on the right wing.

Either way, in the absence of Aki, it looks as if McCloskey’s fine form for Ulster this season will be rewarded with potentially his most significant Test since he acquitted himself well on his debut against England at Twickenham in February 2016.

McCloskey’s enduring qualities for Ulster, where he has been their go-to point of attack for several seasons, has made him the latest cause célèebre among the Kingspan faithful and former Ulster players.

It’s been his misfortune that he is more of a specialist ‘12′ than Aki, Henshaw and Ringrose, all of whom can flip seamlessly from inside to outside centre. Likewise, that Aki and Henshaw are two Lions’ Test starters. In any other era or perhaps even in another country he’d have won more than six caps by now.

His ensuing five caps have come against Fiji, the USA twice, Georgia and Japan, but any kind of extended run against the Springboks would offer the 29-year-old an opportunity to show he can mix it physically at this level as well as apply his passing and offloading skill set, as evidenced by that extraordinary, one-handed, octopus-like offload for Luke Marshall’s try in Ulster’s win over Connacht.

It remains to be seen but, barring injury, Farrell is seemingly in a position to name the same starting forward pack which went through the All Blacks series unchanged, namely with a front-row of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong, along with James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne in the second-row, and a back-row of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris.

Keith Earls is the only other player from the match-day ‘23′ against the All Blacks in the third Test who has been ruled of consideration for the wider squad.

Hence, save for the possible inclusion of McCloskey, it is also possible that Farrell will retain the five forward replacements on the bench – Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Finlay Bealham, Kieran Treadwell and Jack Conan – as well as Joey Carbery as back-up outhalf. However, Ryan Baird’s exclusion from the Ireland ‘A’ game against the All Blacks XV also points to him being in the mix.

The only other change therefore would see Gibson-Park swapping roles as an impact replacement for the last 20 or 30 minutes, as Murray fittingly holds centre stage on his landmark day.

Ireland (possible v South Africa): Keenan; Baloucoune, Ringrose, Henshaw, Hansen; Sexton (capt), Murray; Porter, Sheehan, Furlong; Ryan, Beirne; O’Mahony, van der Flier, Doris. Replacements: Herring, Healy, Bealham, Baird/Treadwell, Conan, Gibson-Park, Carbery, McCloskey.


Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times