Ireland v South Africa: Stuart McCloskey promoted from bench as Robbie Henshaw ruled out

Jimmy O’Brien pulled from Ireland A squad to take up bench role in Saturday’s 23

Stuart McCloskey has been promoted to Ireland’s starting XV at inside centre against South Africa as a consequence of Robbie Henshaw being withdrawn due to a slight hamstring injury.

McCloskey is the natural fit to be promoted from the bench for what is his most meaningful Test match since his debut against England in the 2016 Six Nations at Twickenham. The 29-year-old won the last of his six caps against the USA in July last year.

However, the loss of Henshaw’s experience will be a blow and has had a ripple effect on the Ireland A team’s preparations for their game against the All Blacks XV at the RDS tonight.

The versatile, uncapped Jimmy O’Brien has been pulled from that match and has been promoted to the Ireland bench for tomorrow’s Nations Series game against South Africa at the Aviva Stadium. As a result Calvin Nash has been promoted from the replacements to the wing in the Irish ‘A’ side, with Shane Daly being drafted in to the bench.


McCloskey has partnered Garry Ringrose, once before, in the 57-14 win over the USA in November 2018, when the Ulster centre scored one of his three tries. Heretofore, while Henshaw’s hamstring strain is the latest in a long line of injuries to befall the Irish midfield, usually the latter or the suspended Bundee Aki have been available for the big games.

No less than his Ulster teammate Robert Baloucoune, opportunity knocks now for McCloskey is a major way.

No doubt too the late disruption to both the senior and A team preparations will actually be something that Andy Farrell will welcome on the premise that Ireland have to become adept at overcoming these things in readiness for next year’s World Cup.

In keeping with this rationale, assistant coach Paul O’Connell said today: “We’re very confident about Stuart, but I think Andy is obviously disappointed, and we’re all disappointed on Robbie, he’s a world class player, playing very well. But I think Stuart has had some tough days where he’s been up here training and a coach has had to a conversation with him before the team is announced on Wednesday, and that’s happened an awful lot.

“He’s always stuck with it and seems to be getting better and better and better as a player, never been disheartened. So it’s brilliant for us.

“The whole Emerging Ireland tour, trying to get the game against New Zealand A, it’s all about getting competition for places. It’s all about getting people into the room so that all the players know who the competition is, all the players know they have a shot of getting picked and making it to the World Cup.

“So for Stuart to come in and play, it just broadens the group again for us and we’d be really confident in his ability and his smarts, the experience he has in that position, it’s a great replacement for us.

All that said and done, O’Connell did not see this as some kind of trial to mix and match players.

“I don’t think it’s about bringing people in. We’re trying to win the game, we’re trying to get what we believe is our best team out on the field. And there is a lot of feel to defending. Every team has a system, but you have to have feel within that system and the more you play together, the more you work together, the more you know one another, the easier that feel is.

“I suppose Robbie and Garry have played together a lot more, but Stu has the experience, he has the smarts to be able to come in and do a good job there.

“It’s a real big strength of Robert Baloucoune’s, I wouldn’t be an expert in the backfield or winger decision-making, but from what I’ve seen and what you hear the coaches speak about, that decision-making at the end of the line is a real big strength of Robert’s. Like a few of other wingers then, he has the speed to fix things when things go wrong, so they are two really good players and it’s brilliant to have them in the team.”

Ultimately, no matter what Irish team lined up, they were always going to face the ultimate physical challenge from the Springboks, obliging Ireland to either go around them or meet them head on.

“I suppose you do a bit of both don’t you? You’ve just got to make good decisions. In every game there’s times when you can’t get around a team and you have to be able to be physical, if you can’t get through them.

“That will happen quite a lot tomorrow I’d imagine, they’re a very good defensive side. We talk about putting things in place that allow us to be physical and the boys have worked hard at that and they have a big body of work behind them. So one of our big challenges, like every other team in international rugby, is you don’t have a big pre-season, you generally have about 12 days to put everything into place so you need a body of work behind you when you come into camp, especially for that first game of any campaign, be it a Six Nations or a November or a summer.

“So they’ve a big body of work behind them which hopefully allows them to deliver a physical performance on Saturday.”

Updated Ireland team vs South Africa: Hugo Keenan; Robert Baloucoune, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey, Mack Hansen; Johnny Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Joey Carbery, Jimmy O’Brien.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times