Andy Farrell has insisted he has no anxiety at all following his selection of the inexperienced Ross Byrne for his first Ireland start in 15 months. The 25-year-old made the only start of his eight-cap Test career at Twickenham in August 2019 and it was a scarring experience.
Hauled off on 53 minutes with the English comfortably 36-10 ahead, Leinster half-back Byrne was then left out of the Ireland squad that Joe Schmidt selected for the World Cup in Japan.
He returned to the Test scene when Farrell succeeded Schmidt for the 2020 Six Nations, coming on towards the end of Ireland’s most recent defeat by England in London last February.
And with Sexton now out injured, Byrne has been given the nod ahead of Billy Burns to start for Ireland and try to set the record straight after his costly pre-World Cup visit there.
Murray held in reserve, while there is also an eye-catching back row reshuffle https://t.co/F4WgOoUnh4
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 18, 2020
“He deserves it, he deserves his chance,” said Farrell after unveiling an XV showing four changes from last Friday’s opening round Nations Cup win over Wales – Byrne for Sexton, Keith Earls for Andrew Conway, Bundee Aki for Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander for Josh van der Flier.
“It’s like others, how do you find out how they cope with the big games, the big occasions unless you give them a chance? We can’t just give them a chance of picking them in a squad and just training the whole time. Ross has been involved in some big names for Leinster and this is his chance to go to Twickenham and be part of a great team performance as well.’
First-choice Sexton has often had running verbal battles with England’s Owen Farrell, but Farrell Snr has full confidence that Byrne will cope. “I have no concerns whatsoever,” he said. “He will play his own game. Everyone is different, everyone has got a different temperament and Ross will be his own guy at the weekend. How Ross tends to play the game is very calm, cool and collected.”
Ross and Jamison Gibson-Park – a pairing who have two Ireland starts and eleven caps in total between them – are a very different half-back partnership compared to the long-established Sexton and Conor Murray, who sits on the bench for the second successive game.
Farrell, though, believes that this is his chance to check out the depth of his squad and while Ireland were beaten up on the last three occasions they were defeated by England, he is keen to see what unfolds as he nears the end of his first year in charge.
“It’s a big chance for us as a group to find out where we are at, where we are on our journey. There is a bit disparity in the mental age of this group, some really experienced players and some youth as well, and we are trying to close that gap to see where we can move forward to together.
“To be able to find out about the group moving forward we have got to give people a chance on the big stage and this is a big game. We find out about ourselves as a group and we find out about individuals as well along the way.
“I have not got a crystal ball but what I do know is that this is a different group and it’s a different game at the weekend. We have new combinations all over the field that are coming together and learning from these type of experiences all the time.
“They have trained well, prepared well. They can’t wait to get out there and show what they can do. How that transpires we’ll have to wait and see. Like I keep on saying, the game takes its own course and you have got to be good enough to make sure that you have a good feel of what is happening and being adaptable.”
Ireland’s starting XV last Friday was forced into late changes following the withdrawals of Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale. Both are now on the bench for Twickenham, Farrell stating that he can’t disclose what happened Henderson as “it’s a private issue” and adding that “Hugo (Keenan) deserves another start” having taken over against Wales at No15 from Stockdale.
As for the selection of James Ryan as skipper in Sexton’s absence, Farrell is piqued with what might transpire. “I have 100 per cent seen a curiosity in James over the last nine months of him maturing regarding his leadership.
“Over the last couple of years everybody has talked about James being a potential leader for this team, a potential captain for this team, and I saw something nine months ago when we went into the Six Nations where he actually started to think that why people are talking about me like this, maybe I should start doing something about it.
“He has 100 per cent come to the fore in his curiousness of how he wants to lead. I have been super impressed over the last nine months of how he handles himself first and foremost and how he interacts and thinks about others as well.”
The Ryan Line is open at Johnny Sexton's expense https://t.co/3Zo1i8GgVj
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 18, 2020
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