The Ireland team to play England in the opening round of the Guinness Six Nations Championship at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 4.45pm) has been confirmed.
Robbie Henshaw has been selected at full-back for the first time since his debut against the USA during the 2013 summer tour. He is one of three changes to the side that clinched the Grand Slam against England last March, with Devin Toner and Josh van der Flier also starting.
Henshaw anchors a back-three completed by wingers Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale, last season’s top Six Nations try scorer and Player of the Championship. Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki pair up again in the centre after recent starts together against Scotland, England, Italy and New Zealand.
Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are reunited at half-back as Murray returns to the Test arena having missed November’s GUINNESS Series through injury. It will be their 50th international start together after 47 for Ireland and two with the British & Irish Lions in 2017.
Winning his 114th Ireland cap, Rory Best will lead his country for the 29th time – he is chasing his 20th win as skipper. The front row is completed by Leinster duo Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, with Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne, who last played in the Six Nations six years ago, covering the loosehead spot on the bench.
Toner and van der Flier are the two other changes to the team that overcame England 24-15 at Twickenham. James Ryan makes it an all-Leinster second row combination, while van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, the Six Nations’ leading ball carrier in the last two tournaments, make up the back row.
Bolstering the bench, the fit-again Sean O’Brien is poised for his first Six Nations appearance in two years after an injury-disrupted 2018. Another notable inclusion of Ulster scrum half John Cooney who is standing by to make his Championship bow.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 31, 2019
Commenting on the team selection, head coach Joe Schmidt said: “Robbie trained last week and in November a little bit at full-back and he actually trained there in Australia (in the summer) as well. He has been an option for us for some time there.
“Rob (Kearney) just ran out of time (coming back from a quad injury) and we like the flexibility of Jordan (Larmour) and what he gives us off the bench. I thought he came on really well last season against England, coming in at 13 and having to play the last 35 minutes.
“It’s one of those things that we have seen as an option for quite some time so it’s probably not as much of a surprise to Robbie and the team as it might be to other people. With 31 guys going to a World Cup, you need guys who can be versatile so there is probably a little bit of that as well as Robbie being a good player and a recognised full-back anyway.”
He added: “Sean (O’Brien) always comes close to making the teams when available. I think it’s just that he hasn’t been available for quite some time and we want him to be able to get a bit of a feel for the match, have a bit of a look at it first. And then get out there and make the difference he can.
“We know how robust he is out there, we know how much pressure he can put on the ball, we know how well he carries. We want him to bring all that. He’s incredibly game intelligent and having that in that last quarter will be really important to us. That final quarter will probably be where the game is decided.”
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v England, 2019 Guinness Six Nations Championship, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, February 2, kick-off 4.45pm):
15. Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster) 36
14. Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) 72
13. Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster) 17
12. Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht) 12
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster) 14
10. Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 78
9. Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) 67
1. Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) 84
2. Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt) 112
3. Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster) 28
4. Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) 63
5. James Ryan (UCD/Leinster) 13
6. Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster) 52
7. Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster) 13
8. CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster) 28
16. Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 65
17. Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster) 24
18. Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) 11
19. Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht) 8
20. Sean O’Brien (UCD/Leinster) 52
21. John Cooney (Terenure College/Ulster) 4
22. Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Munster) 16
23. Jordan Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 9