Ireland v Romania: Johnny Sexton captains strong side for Rugby World Cup opener

Keith Earls starts on the wing and Rob Herring as hooker in Ireland’s opening Rugby World Cup Pool B match against Romania

Andy Farrell has unveiled a strong selection, featuring a largely familiar cast of frontliners including the returning Johnny Sexton for Ireland’s opening Rugby World Cup Pool B match against Romania in the Stade de Bordeaux on Saturday (kick-off 3.30pm local time/2.30pm Irish). But there are one or two surprises in a slightly rejigged pack, notably the inclusion of the squad’s youngest and least experienced player, Joe McCarthy.

The 22-year-old partners James Ryan in the secondrow, as a result of which, Tadhg Beirne shifts to the backrow, which in turn means Peter O’Mahony moves across from blindside to openside.

Save for the anticipated return of Sexton to captain the side, the only other alteration to the backline which started in the second warm-up game against England sees Keith Earls surprisingly chosen on the right-wing ahead of Mack Hansen after being forced to withdraw from the hard-earned 17-13 win over Samoa in Bayonne last time out.

All told, there are 13 changes in personnel from that starting XV against the Samoans, with only Beirne and Caelan Doris retained.


Having missed Ireland’s three warm-up games due to a hamstring issue, Rónan Kelleher will make his seasonal return from the bench, which also features the experienced quartet of Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, as well as Jack Crowley.

McCarthy is one of six World Cup debutants inn the starting line-up, as well as Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park., Rob Herring and Caelan Doris.

Asked about his selection, Farrell said: “Well, because he deserves it with the form that he’s shown, not just in the games that he’s played but also in his preparation over the last 10/11 weeks. He’s really progressed his game, and he gets an opportunity to start in the first game of the World Cup.”

There are another four potential World Cup debutants off the bench, but on balance Farrell has veered more toward players who’ve been through it before, as he outlined.

“We have been excited about this for a long time but now we are here and we have just travelled down from Tours to get off the train to the match venue, it’s business, you know?

“That’s where we are at. That’s why experience within your group is a good thing as well because when you get to these type of tournaments and the euphoria that’s around it, if you’re young, inexperienced type of player, you can get lost in the carnival atmosphere etc.

“But we have experience in abundance with our group that keeps the mind focused for everyone that’s involved because from what I have experienced as a player or as a coach, as an assistant coach, teams that do well are the ones that understand that it’s just about rugby, and nothing but the rugby.

“Of course we embrace everything else that is going on around us when it’s our down time, but when it gets to preparation and executing under pressure at the weekend, experience allows us to make sure how to go about our business.

“We are here now. We are in Bordeaux and that’s the theme over the next couple of days for sure.”

Interestingly, with Earls and Sexton starting, and Murray on the bench, the trio of players in the squad who’ve played in three World Cups are all in the ‘23′.

For Sexton this will be his first match in almost six months and he admitted: “Getting back fit from the injury was the first challenge and then once I got back from that then being able to reintegrate with the team and getting back to speed.

“When you’re a little bit behind at the start, you’ve got to work harder to stay fit and improve your fitness, so that’s what I’ve tried to do over the last couple of months. How we’ve trained will help me hopefully. We’ve trained hard and we’ve trained very much like you’d expect us to. “Hopefully I can go out and play well and have a good performance. I expect that of myself. There are no excuses in that regard.”

He described the Stade de Bordeaux as an amazing stadium, adding: “I’m sure the Irish will travel like they always do and it’s a very different atmosphere to what you normally get at rugby matches. It’s very much like a soccer World Cup atmosphere, the ones I’ve been involved in to date, and we’re looking forward to that.

“But also with that comes a bit of nerves. We’ve built to this moment for the last four years so now it’s finally here the nerves come in but it’s about embracing them and going out and trying to play our best.”

Nor is he approaching this World Cup differently from the previous three.

“Every World Cup is special. I know we always get tarnished that we haven’t got past a quarter-final. But we have some amazing memories at World Cups. We have been very successful in our pools over the years, come away with some big, big victories.

“A lot of good memories from World Cups, obviously a few of them have ended badly. We are very much looking forward to it. We’re not carrying that baggage or anything with us.”

Nor is he looking beyond the pool stages yet.

“We haven’t looked past this game to be honest. We do know what’s ahead in terms of the group that we’re in is incredible, so it’s all about getting out of our pool for the moment.

“If we can do that, we will worry about the quarter-final if we get there.”

Ireland team to play Romania: 15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster); 14. Keith Earls (Munster), 13. Garry Ringrose (Leinster), 12. Bundee Aki (Connacht), 11. James Lowe (Leinster); 10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster, captain), 9. Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); 1. Andrew Porter (Leinster), 2. Rob Herring (Ulster), 3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), 4. Joe McCarthy (Leinster), 5. James Ryan (Leinster), 6. Tadhg Beirne (Munster), 7. Peter O’Mahony (Munster), 8. Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: 16. Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), 17. Jeremy Loughman (Munster), 18. Tom O’Toole (Ulster), 19. Iain Henderson (Ulster), 20. Josh van der Flier (Leinster), 21. Conor Murray (Munster), 22. Jack Crowley (Munster), 23. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times