Johnny Sexton decision hints at big team selection calls for Springboks and Scots 2 weeks ago

Johnny Sexton decision hints at big team selection calls for Springboks and Scots

The cards are firmly laid out on the table.

During a House of Rugby discussion on possible team selection calls for the Tonga game, former Munster teammates Peter Stringer and Johne Murphy had a robust Johnny sexton debate.


While Stringer urged caution, and suggested Jack Crowley start against Tonga, Murphy believed Sexton would start the first three games. With a big gap between the third and fourth pool games, for Ireland, he suggested Sexton may get the 10 jersey for each of his side's four guaranteed matches.

He may have been banned for the warm-ups but Sexton is the horse Ireland rode up on. For this World Cup, they are not even pretending he is the beating heart of this squad.

Johnny Sexton Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, right, and head coach Andy Farrell (left). (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

There's Johnny Sexton, then the rest

The team selection Andy Farrell made for Tonga has surprised many of us. He has made four changes but, if anything three of those changes makes Ireland stronger. The scrumhalf switch is horses (going back to them again!) for courses.

Out go Keith Earls, Rob Herring, Joe McCarthy and Jamison Gibson-Park. In come Mack Hansen, Rónan Kelleher, Josh van der Flier and Conor Murray.


Many of us suspected there would be fringe players getting more minutes from the start against Romania, if not Tonga. As it turns out, Farrell has gone with a strong XV for both. These matches, more than the mix-and-match August games, are the testers for the men he will pair off against a formidable South Africa.

By selecting Johnny Sexton as captain of two stacked starting teams, Farrell has effectively shown his hand to the Springboks and Scots. There may be a couple of fresh bodies drafted in, but Ireland are gunning for top spot. The gap (12 days) between the South Africa and Scotland game mean Ireland will be going with heavy hitters all through the pool.

"I don’t have any say in selection, I just rock up to training and do my best," Sexton remarked.

"Obviously I want to play. When you only have a certain amount of games left in your career, of course you want to play, but it’s what’s right for the team, what’s right for different individuals."

It is interesting to note how the Farrell decision are being absorbed by the public. He is so well regarded, and Ireland are on such a hot streak, that almost every call he makes is readily accepted.


The unabashed reliance on Sexton and the frontliners in from the start against the two lowest ranked sides in the pool. Had Joe Schmidt done similar, in 2019, even that great man would have had his decisions questioned. Farrell does it and we can immediately see where he is coming from. Such is the credit this man has in the bank.

Ireland have won 26 of their last 28 Tests, have beaten each of their big rivals in the last 14 months and have a Grand Slam and a sustained World No.1 ranking to show for it. Farrell has earned the right to make a stack of big calls and get the benefit of doubt will doing so.

As Farrell observed, in his Thursday press briefing, anything can happen in the days and hours before games. Malcolm Marx did his ACL [knee] in training with South Africa and his World Cup is over. The same happened with Fiji's Caleb Muntz.

That being said, this is how Ireland look to be shaping up for their September 23rd date with the reigning world champions. We consider players in bold locks to start, if fit.

POSSIBLE IRELAND XV (vs. South Africa)


15. Hugo Keenan
14. Mack Hansen
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Bundee Aki
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Andrew Porter
2. Rónan Kelleher
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Tadhg Beirne
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O'Mahony
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Caelan Doris

It is hard to imagine Dan Sheehan or Jack Conan coming in from medium-term injuries to start against South Africa, so most of that XV looks set in stone. Tadhg Beirne could play blindside and Joe McCarthy start at lock, if Ireland wanted extra heft in the pack, while starting hooker could yet be Rob Herring, depending on how Rónan Kelleher shapes up against Tonga.

Looking ahead to Scotland, three weeks away, we could see a few changes to keep things fresh. However, do not now expect Farrell to stray too far from his main men.


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