DUBLIN (Reuters) - Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls will make their first pre-World Cup starts for Ireland in their final warm up game against Wales on Saturday as both sides named strong sides on the eve of the tournament.
All three players were held back during Ireland’s patchy preparations but return to a backline that, bar the rested Jacob Stockdale, will likely closely resemble the one that will start in the Sept. 22. opener against Scotland in Yokohama.
Altogether Ireland coach Joe Schmidt made 12 changes from the mostly second-string team that beat a similarly fringe Wales side 22-17 last weekend. Welsh coach Warren Gatland changed his entire starting team.
The victory in Cardiff went some way towards atoning for the previous week’s worrying 57-15 record loss to England and Saturday’s game will give a number of those who underperformed in Twickenham the first chance to put that defeat behind them.
“We know we’re never as good as people say we are and the flip side is we’re never as bad as people say we are,” Ireland captain Rory Best told a news conference.
“Certainly a week ago we were more disappointed than anyone after the England game. We just made sure that we got a few things addressed that weren’t going the way we wanted to and we’ll see on Saturday past, this Saturday and into the World Cup whether we take ownership of that.”
With Schmidt opting for a backrow featuring two traditional number 8’s in CJ Stander and Jack Conan, his defence coach Andy Farrell said the team was selected “a little bit” with Scotland in mind but that there was still massive competition for places.
The final warm up game will also be the departing Schmidt and retiring Best’s last in Dublin and while one staff member greeted Best in tears as he came off their County Kildare training pitch for the last time on Thursday, the Ulsterman said he could not allow himself to give the occasion much thought.
“It’ll be a really big occasion when I look back upon it and I’m sure my family will feel it a lot more than I do in the build up to the game but ultimately it’s making sure that as a team we take a massive step forward and we put ourselves in the best possible position to get on a flight to Japan,” he said.
15-Rob Kearney, 14-Jordan Larmour, 13-Robbie Henshaw, 12-Bundee Aki, 11-Keith Earls, 10-Johnny Sexton, 9-Conor Murray, 8-Jack Conan, 7-Josh van der Flier, 6-CJ Stander, 5-Jean Kleyn, 4-James Ryan, 3-Tadhg Furlong, 2-Rory Best (captain), 1-Cian Healy
Replacements: 16-Sean Cronin, 17-Dave Kilcoyne, 18-Andrew Porter, 19-Iain Henderson, 20-Rhys Ruddock, 21-Luke McGrath, 22-Jack Carty, 23-Garry Ringrose
Reporting by Padraic Halpin, editing by Pritha Sarkar