It has been a long summer but the wait for the beginning of the 2023 Rugby World Cup is almost over. All roads lead to France for the start of the tournament in just under two weeks’ time.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell announced his 33-playersquad for the World Cup today at the Shelbourne Hotel, alongside Jonathan Sexton who will captain the team over the coming weeks.
Farrell’s men begins their campaign on Saturday, September 9 against Romania, followed by their other Pool B games with Tonga, defending World Cup champions South Africa and old foes Scotland. Many have described it as the ‘group of death’.
Involved with Ireland at the last World Cup as defence coach, the Wigan man has created a very settled group in the last couple of years. His travelling party for France has an 18/15 forwards-to-backs split.
Joe McCarthy, the youngest member of the squad at 22, gets the nod while Keith Earls, Irish Rugby’s latest centurion, is set for his fourth World Cup. There is also a place for Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey, one of 18 World Cup debutants.
Farrell has full faith in the players that he has selected for the challenges ahead, saying: “Confident? Of course I am. Like I said, it’s about what we’ve got and players who can play in a few positions. We’ve got a few of those across the forward pack.
“The balance of the squad for such a small group that goes to the World Cup, versatility within that is pretty important. The likes of Keith (Earls) and Jimmy O’Brien come into that category.”
Delivering such important selection decisions to players can sometimes be a bittersweet moment for coaches. For some you are making their lifelong dreams a reality, while for those who have not made it, it is a difficult conversation and ultimately a disappointing day for them.
“It’s obviously difficult because you’re shattering somebody’s dream, but I would hope that through all campaigns you don’t let bad news become a shock,” explained Farrell.
“You’re constantly giving feedback to them, to let them know where they’re at, and players are not stupid. They’ve always got a sense of where they’re at along the way.
“What I would say is that the reason it is difficult for myself to tell those five players the other day is that they made it very easy for me, their understanding that they’re all team players. There’s no selfishness in the group.”
There was disappointment for Cian Healy who suffered a calf injury in the Samoa game which meant he missed out on a World Cup squad place. The prop became Ireland’s most-capped forward of all-time in Bayonne on Saturday with his 125th appearance.
Following early indications that Healy will be ruled out for five to 10 weeks, Farrell confirmed: “He hasn’t (made it). He’s just had a scan as we got off the plane and he’ll be out for a spell of time that won’t be right, unfortunately, for Cian and for us, certainly for the start of the competition.
It’s devastating, isn’t it? That’s sport, that’s life, that’s rugby. Cian’s big enough and old enough and experienced enough to be through these type of things before.
“I remember in 2013 on the Lions he got injured early and had to fly home. He’s experienced something like this and understands that these things happen. He’s devastated, as we all are for him.”
Talismanic out-half Jonathan Sexton, who led Ireland to their fourth Grand Slam earlier this year, will play at his fourth World Cup – but this time as captain. It will be his last tournament before retirement.
It has been a frustrating few months for the 38-year-old who last played in Ireland’s Grand Slam-clinching win over England back in March where he suffered a groin injury and was forced off the pitch.
He missed the three World Cup warm-up matches, including the home victories over Italy and England, due to a three-match ban for a misconduct charge following Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup final defeat to La Rochelle.
Regretting his actions which saw him found guilty of being ‘confrontational and aggressive’ towards the final’s match officials, Sexton said: “I made a mistake in the heat of the moment.
“I was obviously very emotional on the day not being part of what I had mapped out from the start of the year as playing my last game for Leinster in the Aviva (Stadium), winning a European Cup.
“It’s what I dreamt of and then obviously to miss that, there’s a lot of emotion that goes with it. In that split second I went on to console my team-mates, I made a remark and I regretted it instantly.
“You make mistakes, you say sorry and hold your hands up and that’s what I’ve done.”
The Dubliner has achieved so much in his career with both Leinster and Ireland, along with many personal accolades including the World Rugby Player of the Year award in 2018. Captaining his country for a World Cup campaign means a ‘huge amount’ to him.
“If someone told me four years ago I’d be back here as captain, I would have taken it 100%,” added Sexton, who captained Ireland for the first time against Russia in a 2019 World Cup pool fixture.
“There’s been a lot put into this team by the management over the last four years and to get their vote of confidence four years ago to do it with this as the end goal, it’s been huge.
“I’m very proud for myself, my family and just for the group that we have. It’s a very privileged position to be in with such a good group.”