The three key talking points ahead of Ireland's Rugby World Cup opener
Ireland's quest for World Cup glory begins this afternoon.
After what was a pulsating Rugby World Cup curtain raiser last night as France powered past a bewildered All Blacks, Andy Farrell's Ireland side open their tournament account against Romania in Bordeaux this afternoon.
Four years of preparation which has seen countless historic moments, from Grand Slams to series wins over the All Blacks, have led up to this moment, but it will all be in vain should Ireland fail to break their quarter-final hoodoo.
Contending with a number of injuries alongside a combination of some perplexing squad rotation, the Irish coaching ticket have named a virtually full-strength first XV, in a bid to avoid the horrors of Ireland's previous World Cup visit to Bordeaux against Georgia back in 2007.
Ahead of what is set to be an engrossing affair, we take a look at the three key talking points facing Irish rugby fans this afternoon.
Ireland's three key talking points pre-Romania:
1. The return of the prodigal son:
Having not lined out in a competitive fixture since St. Patrick's weekend against England in the Six Nations, owing to a combination of a groin injury and his well-publicised suspension for misconduct, Ireland's talismanic skipper is set to make his long-awaited return this afternoon.
Undoubtedly the key to any potential Irish success this autumn, a host of questions still linger over Johnny Sexton ahead of what will be the swan song to an already glittering career. Does he slot back in like he was never away, or does the Leinster man need time to regain match fitness and sharpness?
Not having been involved in any of Ireland's World Cup warm-up matches, it will be interesting to see how a backline which looked so potent against the likes of the English will deal with a 'new' general calling the shots. Although, if you were a betting man, you'd hedge your money on it appearing as if Ireland's soon-to-be record points scorer never missed a beat.
2. The Keith Earls v Mack Hansen debate:
Mack Hansen has been an ever-present in the Irish backline since making his debut in the 2022 Six Nations against Wales. His man-of-the-match performance that day was a sign of things to come, with the Connacht flyer barely putting a foot wrong over the course of his 16 cap career to date.
However, eyebrows were raised on Thursday when Andy Farrell named his Irish side with a glaring omission on the right wing, instead opting for the experience of centurion Keith Earls. In what will be the Munster man's fourth World Cup, the 35-year-old has been selected to make his 101th Test appearance from the offing against the Romanians.
Many speculated that Earls' inclusion had come by way of an injury to Mack Hansen, but this was rubbished by assistant coach Mike Catt, who said this week that call was purely made on merit, with injury playing no role in it. Has Earls forced his way back into Andy Farrell's first-choice XV, or is it really a case of saving Hansen's legs ahead of an action-packed group stages.
3. Maintaining standards in challenging conditions:
Rugby World Cups are traditionally moderate affairs in a climatic sense, either taking place in the Northern Hemisphere's early autumn or Southern Hemisphere's early spring. However, Ireland came undone by the unfamiliar humidity which presented itself at the 2019 Japanese World Cup, offering up energy-sapped performances against the hosts and the All Blacks.
Conditions ahead of this afternoon's clash are uncharacteristically warm for this time of year, with temperatures in Bordeaux set to climb as high as 36 degrees at stages during the game. Ireland have planned in advance though for this scenario, with warm weather training camps in Portugal over the course of the summer.
With a win over Romania already a likely scenario, the main question for this Irish side will be whether or not they can maintain their intensity and accuracy over the course of the 80 minutes. Romania may fail to punish any Irish fits of mental and physical fatigue, but the ability to best the conditions will be crucial against the likes of Tonga, the Springboks and the Scots.
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- Dan Carter explains traditional difference between All Blacks’ and French approach to pre-match speeches
- Experienced trio ruled out of Ireland’s opening World Cup encounter