Video: Ireland bring out the big guns
TEAM ANNOUNCEMENT: Ireland is ready to unleash their big guns on England in the opening round of the Six Nations.
Conor Murray and world player of the year Johnny Sexton are reunited for defending champions, Ireland, in their opener against England at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
Scrumhalf Murray missed the November Tests – including the historic home Test win over world champions New Zealand – as he had only just recovered from a neck injury.
Kieran Marmion deputised for him very effectively alongside Sexton but he is presently out of contention due to injury although he could only have expected to slot in on the replacements bench in any case with Murray fit again.
Murray and Sexton have formed a world-class halfback partnership, flourishing under head coach Joe Schmidt’s direction and climaxing with the Six Nations Grand Slam last year.
Sexton, though, is the one who comes into the game with a question mark over his fitness, the 33-year-old has not played in Leinster’s two European Champions Cup matches due to a knee issue.
Schmidt, entering his final Six Nations as he steps down after this year’s World Cup, has stayed largely faithful to the side that disposed of the All Blacks.
To this end, the New Zealander retains the centre partnership of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose which means a rare appearance at fullback for Robbie Henshaw.
The 25-year-old – Ringrose’s centre partner at Leinster – has played all but one of his 36 Tests in the midfield but began his career at fullback when he was at Connacht and it is believed it is his favoured position.
Henshaw gets the nod at fullback as veteran Rob Kearney has only just returned to action and looked rusty in his reappearance for Leinster last Friday.
He does not even make the bench as Schmidt opts for the spontaneity of youngster Jordan Larmour, who can play either at fullback or the wing.
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“We really felt the way he trained in Portugal last week and this week that it was worth pursuing,” Schmidt said of Henshaw starting at full-back, playing down any fears that England might target him.
“If they do, Robbie will have a good response for that and he will get plenty of support from Keith [Earls] and Jacob [Stockdale].”
Turning to Larmour’s inclusion ahead of Kearney, Schmidt said: “I like the flexibility of Jordan on the bench. He came on really well last year and impressed against England in the Grand Slam clincher.
“It’s one of those things we have see as an option for quite some time so it is not so much of a surprise. Rob played the Scarlets but he looked rusty.”
James Ryan and the giant Devin Toner line up in the second row with Schmidt deprived of injured duo Iain Henderson and the in-form Tadhg Beirne.
Ireland – who will start favourites on the back of 18 wins in their last 19 Tests including two over England – are captained once again by veteran hooker Rory Best, the 36-year-old in line to win his 114th cap.
Ireland: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Sean O’Brien, 21 John Cooney, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
Date: Saturday, February 2
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 16.45 (16.45 GMT)
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)