Robbie Henshaw is back to full fitness and will make his 2019 Rugby World Cup debut when Ireland play Samoa in Saturday’s final Pool A game at Fukuoka Hakatanamori Stadium (kick-off 7.45pm local time/11.45am Irish time).
Henshaw returns from a hamstring injury for his first appearance since last month’s 19-10 warm-up win over Wales. He partners his former Connacht team-mate Bundee Aki, with the selected side showing eleven personnel changes from last week’s 35-0 victory over Russia in Kobe.
Aki, Keith Earls and Jonathan Sexton are retained in the back-line, while Tadhg Beirne moves from the second row to blindside flanker. Earls switches to the right wing, accommodating Jacob Stockdale’s selection on the left, and Jordan Larmour replaces Rob Kearney at full-back.
Sexton, who captained Ireland for the first time last Thursday, combines again with Conor Murray in a familiar and experienced half-back partnership, and that is also the case in the front row where Ulster’s Rory Best resumes as captain, packing down with props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong.
Indeed, with their 55th start together in the green jersey, Sexton and Murray will equal the all-time Ireland half-back record set by Munster duo Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer between 2000 and 2015.
Best captains Ireland for the 37th time, overtaking Keith Wood and moving into second place behind Brian O’Driscoll who has led the country on a record 83 occasions. Best and Murray are the only players in Saturday’s team who started Ireland’s 40-9 defeat of Samoa in November 2013, which was Joe Schmidt’s first game in charge.
Iain Henderson and James Ryan are set for their third World Cup start together in the second row, while Beirne’s inclusion on the blindside is the only change to the pack that started against both Scotland and Japan. Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander complete the back row, with vice-captain Peter O’Mahony providing back-up.
Joining O’Mahony on the bench are front rowers Niall Scannell, David Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter, lock Jean Kleyn and backs Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery and Andrew Conway. Carbery, who got a 20-minute cameo against Japan, was a late withdrawal before the Russia game.
Speaking about the team selection as Ireland look to seal a quarter-final place as the first or second-place finishers in Pool A, head coach Schmidt said: “Rob (Kearney) ran today, but was a little bit slow to pick up during the week, as was Peter O’Mahony, as was Rhys (Ruddock). And, so, we’ve gone with the guys who can give us the best preparation into the game.
“Guys like Garry Ringrose has been outstanding so far, but he’s played three sets of 80 minutes in just 11 days. You can’t expect people to keep on keeping on when that’s the case. Robbie (Henshaw) is fresh and we’re excited to have him in there. So it is a little bit about balancing the load as well, albeit in a huge game for us.
“Tadhg (Beirne) has been really solid, he’s been versatile for us. I thought he carried well against Russia, albeit the ball was more and more through the game a bar of soap, which made it very difficult.
“His ability to put pressure on the ball on the ground, his lineout work has been good – he gives us a little bit more height in the lineout. Defensively, he gets off the line well and he has trained really well. That’s probably the bit that people don’t see, but that does certainly have an influence in our eyes in making selection.”
He added: “I think there have been in elements in both of those – as you describe – sub-par performances (against Japan and Russia), where we’ve actually done some really positive stuff. We’ve just got to make sure that that is consistently delivered.
“We got ourselves into a bit of trouble in the Russian game, chasing that bonus point. Once we’d got the three tries, it took us about another 25 minutes before we got the next one, because we make some super line-breaks and then tried to score immediately.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to make sure, when you’re looking after the ball, that you can retain it and keep the pressure on, keep the squeeze on – and not maybe over-try, or try too hard.”
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Samoa, 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A, Fukuoka Hakatanamori Stadium, Saturday, October 12, kick-off 7.45pm local time/11.45am Irish time):
15. Jordan Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 19
14. Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) 80
13. Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster) 38
12. Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht) 22
11. Jacob Stockdale (Lurgan/Ulster) 23
10. Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 86
9. Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) 76
1. Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) 93
2. Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt) 122
3. Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster) 39
4. Iain Henderson (Queen’s University/Ulster) 51
5. James Ryan (UCD/Leinster) 21
6. Tadhg Beirne (Lansdowne/Munster) 11
7. Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster) 21
8. CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster) 36
16. Niall Scannell (Dolphin/Munster) 18
17. Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster) 34
18. Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) 21
19. Jean Kleyn (Munster) 4
20. Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster) 62
21. Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster) 17
22. Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Munster) 20
23. Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster) 17