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Farrell: It’s A Challenge We’re Ready For

Farrell: It’s A Challenge We’re Ready For

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell spoke to the media following the announcement of the team to play South Africa ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell said he had some ‘difficult conversations’ with players who did not make the squad for Saturday night’s eagerly-awaited Rugby World Cup encounter with South Africa.

Ireland have used 29 players across the opening two rounds of the tournament, fielding a mostly settled team with 15 World Cup debuts – eight forwards and seven backs – handed out so far.

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Jamison Gibson-Park slots back in at scrum half in the only change to the team that won 59-16 against Tonga. Dan Sheehan has recovered from a foot injury and is poised for his World Cup bow as replacement hooker.

For the Pool B top of the table clash in Paris, eleven members of Ireland’s starting XV from last November’s 19-16 win over the Springboks are retained. Ronan Kelleher continues at hooker on the back on his first start since last season’s Six Nations.

Asked about the toughest selection calls he had to make, Farrell said: “There are plenty, constantly. The conversations I have to have during the week are difficult ones because they all want to play and deservedly so because they are good players in their own right.

“We have got to make the right decision for the team for this particular game and those conversations are never easy, but the players make them easier because they understand the team always comes first.”

When the teams last met, Gibson-Park replaced the injured Conor Murray before half-time, and it was his sharp dummy and sniping run that helped to set up a try out wide for Mack Hansen which gave Ireland a crucial 10-point lead.

Looking forward to the rematch with the ‘Boks, the Leinster half-back commented: “I suppose as a squad we feel our start to the World Cup has gone pretty well. Obviously two from two and we seem to be improving with each game.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge against South Africa no doubt. I think everybody knows what to expect from them at this stage. They’re big and physical with rapid outside backs.

“You give those guys a hint of space and they’re going to punish you and score tries. Then a big, physical pack and ball-carrying centres. A very good team all round.”

A hamstring injury limited Gibson-Park’s involvement during the 2023 Grand Slam-winning run to two appearances. With Murray and Craig Casey snapping at his heels, he knows he needs to be firing on all cylinders in order to retain the number 9 jersey.

Farrell reckons the 31-year-old will rise to the occasion again, saying: “We just want Jamo being himself and producing the form he has produced for us throughout his time as an international. The pace and skill-set he brings to our game is something we all enjoy watching.”

It is also a big boost to get a player of the calibre of Sheehan back in the matchday squad. He was ever-present during the New Zealand series, started against South Africa and Australia last November, and scored two tries during March’s Grand Slam decider against England.

Ireland are blessed with strength in depth in the hooker position, especially when you consider that Ulster’s Rob Herring misses out this weekend despite scoring three tries in his last three Test appearances.

“Dan is obviously fit and raring to go and in fine condition,” confirmed Farrell. “He’s a world-class hooker in my opinion and he gets his chance to get his tournament under way.”

The overall picture in Pool B will become somewhat clearer after the Ireland-South Africa match and Sunday’s fixture between Scotland and Tonga. The Scots are without a point after their only outing so far, while Ireland (10 points) and the ‘Boks (9) currently lead the way.

That could all change over the course of the next week, but Farrell acknowledged that Ireland’s quarter-final hopes do not fully hinge on Saturday’s result. They still have Scotland to play at the same venue on Saturday, October 7.

“It’s not a must-win, it is not a do-or-die game but it is pretty important to both teams, let’s put it that way,” he said of the showdown with Jacques Nienaber’s charges. “It’s always nice to win but we have always looked at ourselves mainly in terms of performance.

“It’s a big game, there will be over 30,000 Irish supporters in a stadium we know well. We want to get back to winning ways there (after losing to France in 2022), so it is a challenge we are ready for, looking forward to and it is coming soon.”

Despite having to field numerous questions from the media about it, the Wigan man was not getting too caught up in South Africa’s 7-1 split for their replacement options. Cobus Reinach is the only specialist back on their forward-heavy bench.

Ireland have gone with the tried-and-trusted 5-3 split, which has served them well even on their most injury-disrupted days. They lost Stuart McCloskey, Murray and Tadhg Furlong to injury during their last meeting with the ‘Boks but still managed to emerge victorious.

The Grand Slam bid could have been derailed in Edinburgh last March, with both hookers forced off along with Iain Henderson and Garry Ringrose. However, Josh van der Flier and Cian Healy showed their versatility, throwing in at the lineout and scrummaging at hooker respectively.

Farrell added: “There are all sort of different permutations. Even with a five-three split, you can’t cover everything. But you need to be adaptable, which is something we have worked hard at with our planning over the last few years.

“I suppose South Africa have done exactly the same with the seven-one split. I love it, I respect it. I like the fact they know their squad and brought four scrum halves over, a hooker who has not really played in that specialist position before.

“It shows they know their players and which direction they want to go. Hopefully they think the same about us as well.”