KOBE, Japan (Reuters) - Flyhalf Johnny Sexton will return to captain the Ireland team against Russia in Kobe on Thursday as coach Joe Schmidt made 11 changes in his bid to pick up the pieces following the shock World Cup defeat to Japan.
Sexton was not risked on Saturday in an otherwise near full strength side because of the minor thigh strain picked up in opening bonus point win over Scotland but said he felt good and ready to go having kicked in the last two days of training.
Ireland will qualify for the last eight with bonus-point wins over Russia and Samoa, and could still top Pool A and secure a potentially less difficult quarter-final if Japan slip up in their remaining two games.
“We’ve got some guys who have been very, very keen to be involved,” Schmidt told a news conference after naming eight players who will start their first game of the tournament.
“We do need to make sure everyone is ready. It is pretty tough with the six-day turnaround and the five-day turnaround, there’s always going to be a bit of attrition so we’re looking to freshen it up.”
As the only starter to have played all 160 minutes so far, fielding centre Garry Ringrose again was a risk, admitted Schmidt but he felt with Robbie Henshaw on the cusp of returning from injury, Chris Farrell out with a concussion and Ringrose feeling great, it was a calculated one.
Flanker Peter O’Mahony is the sole forward retained in a pack that got outmuscled in the 19-12 loss with Jordi Murphy one of only two non-Munster players among the eight having flown out to Japan on Sunday to replace the injured Jack Conan.
Ireland will chase a bonus-point win in the same sticky and humid conditions under the roof at the Kobe Misaki Stadium that led to so many handling errors in Scotland’s Pool A win over Samoa on Monday.
Sexton said the team also got some second hand insight from England flyhalf Owen Farrell - via his father, Ireland defence coach Andy - on how they coped with the Kobe conditions and that Ireland would have to play smart and not run everything.
The Leinster captain added that it would be a massive honour to lead his country out onto the field for the first time in his 86th cap.
“It’s something I’ve thought about since I was a kid, it’s something that I’ve made a lot of decisions around trying to get there one day. It’s taken a while but it’s worth the wait,” Sexton said.
“I want to be captain now of a good performance and a good win in a World Cup game. Nothing’s changed.”
Ireland: 15-Rob Kearney, 14-Andrew Conway, 13-Garry Ringrose, 12-Bundee Aki, 11-Keith Earls, 10-Johnny Sexton (captain), 9-Luke McGrath, 8-Jordi Murphy, 7-Peter O’Mahony, 6-Rhys Ruddock, 5-Jean Kleyn, 4-Tadhg Beirne, 3-John Ryan, 2-Niall Scannell, 1-Dave Kilcoyne
Replacements: 16-Sean Cronin, 17-Andrew Porter, 18-Tadhg Furlong, 19-Iain Henderson, 20-CJ Stander 21-Joey Carbery, 22-Jack Carty, 22-Jordan Larmour
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty