Ireland vs Australia: Jimmy O’Brien starts with Joe McCarthy set for debut off the bench

Stuart McCloskey starts as Bundee Aki returns from suspension to take up bench role

Jimmy O’Brien’s increasing value to the Irish team has, as expected, seen him named in the starting team to face Australia in the final game of the Bank of Ireland Nations Series game at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (8pm).

The 25-year-old from Eadestown, who played at outside centre on his debut as a first-half replacement for Robbie Henshaw against South Africa and started against Fiji at fullback, has been named on the left wing against the Wallabies, so underlining his invaluable versatility as well as his all-round game.

Stuart McCloskey will start a third Test in a row for Ireland for the first time after being retained at inside centre ahead of Bundee Aki, who has completed his suspension and has been included among the replacements.

The uncapped Leinster lock Joe McCarthy is in line to make his Test debut after also being named on the bench ahead of Kieran Treadwell, who started against Fiji and had previously appeared off the bench in five Tests in a row, including all three Tests in New Zealand as well as starting both Maori games.


McCarthy has only started eight of his 13 games for Leinster, but 119kg, 6′ 6″, 21-year-old locks are a rare breed in Irish rugby, or at least had been until recently, and Andy Farrell and his assistants have been eager to fast track him into the squad.

So it was that McCarthy also went to New Zealand and started in both Maori games, as well as two more matches on the Emerging Ireland tour and the recent Ireland ‘A’ defeat by an All Blacks XV, when his involvement was cut short in the eighth minute by a head knock which ruled him out of the Fiji game.

All told, there are eight changes to the starting XV against Fiji, with Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Johnny Sexton, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier all restored.

Compared to the side which kicked off Ireland’s Nations Series against the Springboks, there are just two changes to the starting XV, with O’Brien effectively replacing Baloucoune as Mack Hansen switches to the right, and Jamison Gibson-Park starting at scrumhalf after replacing the injured centurion Conor Murray against South Africa.

But while Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Finlay Bealham and Jack Conan again provide cover up front, in addition to the promoted McCarthy, the young Munster halves of Craig Casey and Jack Crowley have worked their way into the matchday squad in part due to injuries elsewhere, while Aki has also returned.

“It’s the strongest side for this weekend because every side has to be the best fit for our group, but we also have to see what the opposition is about as well,” said Farrell.

The Irish head coach referenced O’Brien’s left-footed option, the return of Keenan and Hansen’s ability to roam in giving the back three “a nice balance”.

“All three of those guys are players who love to make a difference on the ball, off the ball, attack or defence. We’re excited to see how those three go.”

Farrell has not been surprised by O’Brien’s progress in this window, albeit injuries to James Lowe, Keith Earls and others have been a factor in opening a door.

“But his form, him being in camps a couple of times before, and just seeing how unflappable he is, he has all the hallmarks of a great, composed international player. Somebody who can do what he does in many different positions, he doesn’t flap around panicking about moving positions. He’s just being himself wherever he’s picked. Those things are pretty important in any international squad.”

Asked if it was a close call between McCloskey and Aki, Farrell said: “No, no. Stu has earned the right to go again. First game was a bit different and second game was a bit different again and we are hoping to get a better performance against a different side in Australia and one that suits Stu as well.”

The Irish head coach could not hide his belief in McCarthy’s huge potential.

“He’s obviously got a point of difference, and it’s not just his size, it’s his energy, it’s his want to have big moments within the game. He’s grown in all areas,” said Farrell in reference to the New Zealand and Emerging Ireland tours before his ‘A’ outing ended prematurely.

“He’s been out of camp for a week, but he’s earned the right to have a crack and show us what he’s learned.

“It’s not going to be perfect for him, but the bits we’ve been talking about over the last few months, we want to see improvement on that. He’s a doer, Joe. He likes to get amongst it and get stuck in so he won’t shy away from the occasion, that’s for sure. We’re excited with what he’ll bring off the bench.

Even though Dave Rennie has reverted to a dozen of the side that started against France in making 10 changes from the defeat by Italy, Farrell is fully braced for a wounded Wallabies reaction.

“They have a couple of things to hang their hats on with regards to motivation but in reality 10 changes for them and they get the leaders back in the room, so there is a different vibe there from the start. Those guys are the ones that took the field against Scotland and came so close to winning in Paris. Like we have said all week, we know how difficult that is.

“I’m sure they will be using last week as motivation and putting that together with coming to the Aviva and taking our scalp and that will fire them up even more.”

Next Saturday will be an additionally proud day for Farrell and his family given his son Owen will lead out the English side against New Zealand at Twickenham (kick-off 5.30pm) as captain and on the day he becomes just the third English player to win 100 caps for his country.

“Whatever I’ve said about Conor [Murray] and Johnny [Sexton] over the last wee while, the same sentiments. You know the sacrifice that’s gone into a career and anyone who gets up to 100 caps, they’ve shown mental strength, physical strength and resilience in both of those as well.

“Then you add him being my son, it’s pretty special for parents. We have a little ceremony going on for first caps and hundred caps and we invite the families in because I believe that for us being involved in an Irish camp or an English camp or whatever it is, we’re the fortunate ones to be around in our times.

“I think it’s even more important for the families to be involved because they’re the ones who have seen all the sacrifice and been through it all with them. I know for myself that when I’m coaching against Owen or working with him, it’s just work.

“But when you’re watching your son playing his 100th game or his first game as a parent, that’s even more daunting and even more proud and even more nervous. We are as parents, as a family bursting with pride with what he’s achieved. But having said that I see he’s got his press done early in the week so he can get back down to work and I’m sure he’ll think long and hard about what he’s achieved on Sunday.”

Alas, work prevents a family celebration, Farrell noting wryly: “I’m busy on Saturday so I can’t go to the game!”

“Hopefully I will be able to get to the South Africa game straight away after our game,” he added with regard to England’s encounter on Saturday week. “I’ve got to go on a recce to France regarding the World Cup, so I’ll see him after the South Africa game hopefully.”

Asked at what age did he realise his son might be a special player, Farrell said: “I don’t know. His strength is like every person who gets to these type of milestones, his strength is he never thinks he’s that type of player that you’re talking about.

“You speak to Johnny, you speak to Conor, they would tell you exactly the same. They want to prove their self-worth as a team-mate and as a player every single week and that’s why they stay right at the top through all the ups and downs.”

Even though Dave Rennie has reverted to a dozen of the side that started against France in making 10 changes from the defeat by Italy, Farrell is fully braced for a wounded Wallabies reaction.

“They have a couple of things to hang their hats on with regards to motivation but in reality 10 changes for them and they get the leaders back in the room, so there is a different vibe there from the start. Those guys are the ones that took the field against Scotland and came so close to winning in Paris. Like we have said all week, we know how difficult that is.”

Rennie has made Andrew Kellaway the third player to start at fullback, which has been something of a problem position for the Wallabies, in the fourth of Australia’s five match end-of-year tour. Florence debutant Mark Nawaqanitawase and Tom Wright complete the back three.

Rennie restores a wealth of experience, not least with James Slipper returning as captain in what will be his 126th Test, linking up with hooker David Porecki and last week’s captain Allan Ala’alatoa, the only forward retained from last week’s starting pack.

ACT Brumbies duo Cadeyrn Neville and Nick Frost will resume their secondrow partnership which started both the win over Scotland and 30-29 defeat by France.

The same applies to the backrow of blindside Jed Holloway, former captain Michael Hooper (who will win his 124th cap) and number eight Rob Valetini and the halfback pairing of Nic White and Bernard Foley in what will be the latter’s last match for the Wallabies this year before returning to Japan.

Hunter Paisami is retained at inside centre and so, as in the tour opener in Murrayfield, he is again partnered by Len Ikitau, who is starting his fourth Test in a row.

Will Skelton, something of a bogey man with former club Saracens and latterly La Rochelle, returns to the bench, as does backrower Pete Samu in what Rennie virtually conceded was his best available side.

“Ah, it’s certainly pretty close to it. Obviously we’ve had a couple of players go home in Tom Banks and Lalakai [Foketi] and a number of guys who didn’t travel, but we want to try and put our best team on the field and Jock Campbell has been very good. He was probably a bit flat last week as I mentioned, which had a fair bit to do with sickness, and Mark Nawaqanitawase did enough for us to want to give him another crack and that’s forced us to jump around our back three a little bit.

“He certainly provides a point of difference, so yeah we’re trying to put our best side on the field against the number one team in the world.”

Expanding on Ireland, the Australian head coach said: “Ireland are an excellent side. They are very well coached and have a lot of experience, a lot of guys who have played 30-plus Tests and probably had five years of club footy, which is probably 150 games-plus.

“So they are a very good side, very well drilled on set piece, really good short passing game and smart kicking as well. Obviously we have to put them under pressure, obviously Sexton is massive for them, Jamison Gibson-Park, I assume he’ll start and he has been excellent for them.

“So yeah, they are a high-quality side and we’re going to have to be at our best.”

Rennie is aware of Skelton’s imprint on Irish rugby’s psyche.

“Yeah, I had a coffee with Leo Cullen yesterday, he mentioned what a thorn in the side Will had been. But look, we’re well aware of that, he’s a big man, he bullies big men, so his impact is going to come off the bench and obviously the plan is to try and finish strong and finish over the top and he’ll be an important part of that.”

Rennie also gave the clear impression that these Wallabies have been hurting all week and are out to prove a point.

“We were all bitterly disappointed after last weekend’s performance. We’re better than that and we need a response against Ireland on their home deck.

“We’ve had a great week of preparation and welcome back a wealth of experience to the team this weekend.

“We’re excited by the challenge to play the number one side in the world and can’t wait for Saturday night.”

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster); Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon), Jack Crowley (Munster/Cork Constitution), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians).

AUSTRALIA: Andrew Kellaway; Mark Nawaqanitawase, Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami, Tom Wright; Bernard Foley, Nic White; James Slipper (capt), David Porecki, Allan Ala’alatoa; Nick Frost, Cadeyrn Neville; Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Rob Valetini.

Replacements: Folau Fainga’a, Tom Robertson, Taniela Tupou, Will Skelton, Pete Samu, Jake Gordon, Noah Lolesio, Jordan Petaia.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times