How Ireland could line up in their first warm-up game without Johnny Sexton
Andy Farrell effectively has five games to get his team primed for the crunch clash with South Africa.
In the full Johnny Sexton disciplinary committee decision, released on Sunday, the Ireland captain admitted he said 'something to this effect: "It’s a disgrace you guys can't get the big decisions right"
Those comments, he conceded, were 'probably accompanied by expletives, "most likely the F word".'
Sexton lost the run of himself, on a couple of occasions in the space of 15 minutes, as he was caught up in the emotions of his Leinster team losing another European Cup final in a heartbreaking manner. Injured and unable to influence events on the field, he blew off steam to the wrong people and has now paid the price. He will miss all three of Ireland's World Cup warm-up games.
Ireland have another batch of media interviews on Thursday and the party line, no doubt, will be that while Sexton's on-field presence will be missed, he is still very much part of the squad and that both Jack Crowley and Ross Byrne are more than capable in the 10 jersey.
In reality, the captain and talisman going into the World Cup without any meaningful game-time since the March 18 Grand Slam win over England is far from ideal. Ireland, at least, have a settled squad and Byrne will be the frontrunner to start a couple of those games, seeing how well he has fared, back in the squad, and because of his Leinster partnerships, and form.
Tonga defeated Australia 'A' in an exhibition clash, at the weekend, to show they will be no pushovers at the World Cup, especially with the likes of Malakai Fekitoa, Israel Folau and Charles Piutau to now call on. All going well, though, Ireland use Romania and Tonga - their first two World Cup games - to ease Sexton back in, before the steeper challenges of South Africa and Scotland come into view.
How Ireland could line-up without Johnny Sexton
The IRFU pushing Ross Byrne front and centre for World Cup jersey launch media interviews, last week, was a clear indication, to me, that Ross Byrne is getting the team to lead through at least two of the warm-up games.
Jack Crowley is pressing his case to be the next Ireland 10 in near enough every game he plays. Byrne must have felt he had shown enough in his November cameo, against Australia, and the Six Nations to be the presumptive Sexton deputy, and heir. Last season, he was Leinster's 10 and had advanced to that Sexton stage where he was missing league games to be kept fresh for the Champions Cup.
It was all going well, until it wasn't. He sat out the United Rugby Championship semi-final defeat to Munster, in which Crowley was the drop goal hero, then took flak for turning down a long-range penalty, and not seeking out a drop goal attempt, as La Rochelle edged a classic in the Champions Cup final. Byrne has one career drop goal, back in 2017, and could do with adding that skill to his bag of tricks.
To make matters muddier, for Byrne and Leinster, Crowley was then bold and impressive in the URC Final as Munster beat the Stormers to claim their first silverware in a dozen years.
Crowley will be pushing hard to get a couple of warm-up starts and his ability to play inside centre, as well as outhalf, is another tick in his box. Warm-up games are often played out at 70-80% clip and most of us are hoping the players get through them without pulling up or suffering serious injuries. In truth, Andy Farrell will know 29 or 30 of his final 33-man selection, and he will have a pretty good idea of those final few slots.
The XVs that start, in order, against Italy, England and Samoa will most likely be different than what we will see against Tonga and Romania, but look out for the partnerships Farrell goes with. For example, if you see Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw together more than once, expect them to be in pole position for South Africa, on September 23.
The England game should see the strongest Ireland XV fielded, with the Samoa game (on August 26) being used with a view to the Romania game. I would not expect Ireland to be fully loaded for Italy but this, to me, is their most seamless team, to kick on from that last outing against England:
POTENTIAL IRELAND TEAM TO FACE ITALY
15. Hugo Keenan
14. Mack Hansen
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park
1. Andrew Porter
2. Dan Sheehan
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Tadhg Beirne
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O'Mahony
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Caelan Doris
While I would favour Jack Crowley over Ross Byrne, Farrell will be looking for Byrne to be that steady hand on the tiller - with Jamison Gibson-Park at his side - until Johnny Sexton returns.
Other players I would love to see get minutes, and even starts, against Italy include Ronán Kelleher, Gav Coombes, Joe McCarthy, Jimmy O'Brien, Calvin Nash and Ciarán Frawley.
- Stuart McCloskey, the man they could no longer ignore
- Josh van der Flier flourishing under added hype and expectation was one of the season's best stories
- The Christmas chat with "straight-shooter" ROG that got Donnacha Ryan into coaching
- Tadhg Beirne and the Leinster mistake that gets worse every season
- Levani Botia, the former prison officer that perfectly captures La Rochelle's incredible rise
- Brian O'Driscoll on the England press conference remark he quickly regretted
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