Andy Farrell backs Ireland’s new half-back partnership to thrive as he plans for future without veteran greats

Eufemia Didonato

Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne will make his first Ireland start since August 2019 in Saturday’s clash with England, while Jamison Gibson-Park retains the scrum-half role ahead of two-time British and Irish Lions tourist Conor Murray. This is the first time in nine years that Ireland have started without Johnny Sexton […]

Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne will make his first Ireland start since August 2019 in Saturday’s clash with England, while Jamison Gibson-Park retains the scrum-half role ahead of two-time British and Irish Lions tourist Conor Murray.

This is the first time in nine years that Ireland have started without Johnny Sexton or Murray and perhaps gives a glimpse into the thinking of Ireland head coach Andy Farrell who has made four changes to his starting XV for the Autumn Nations Cup game in London.

25-year-old Byrne, whose only previous start came in a 57-15 drubbing at Twickenham before last year’s World Cup, has been given the nod to replace injured captain Sexton over fellow international rookie, and former England Under-20 star, Billy Burns.

The last time Ireland were without either Murray or Sexton was in a Test against England in August 2011, a warm-up for that year’s World Cup when Eoin Reddan partnered Ronan O’Gara.

New Zealand-born Gibson-Park impressed in Friday’s 32-9 victory over Wales. However, Murray made a significant impact from the bench, slotting in at fly-half after both Sexton and Burns left the field injured.

Farrell is excited to see how this new half-back pairing will fare at Twickenham against what is likely to be a 9-10-12 combination of Ben Youngs, George Ford and Farrell’s son, Owen.

“Ross deserves the chance. How do you find out about guys unless you give them an opportunity? Ross has been involved in a lot of big games for Leinster,” he said.

“He’ll play his own game – how he tends to play the game, he’s very cool, calm and collected.

“The obvious thought is that Ross and Jamison are two half-backs that have played together quite a bit for Leinster. I suppose this is a bit of a different way of playing for Ireland compared to how they play at Leinster.

“Ross and Jamison deserve this in their own right on the big stage and we are very curious as to how they do that.

“You look at our experienced half-backs in Conor and Johnny, they had to get that experience somewhere. They had to be trusted to play in big games like this and once Ross and Jamison start running and owning the show on big occasions like this, that is how they gain the experience. They are at the beginning of their journey but they are more than capable of pulling that [big performance] out of the bag.”

24-year-old Leinster lock James Ryan was confirmed on Tuesday as stand-in captain after veteran Sexton was ruled out with a hamstring problem sustained against the Welsh. However, Sexton has remained with Ireland to rehab his injury and remains part of Ireland’s leadership group offering advice to Ryan.

In further changes to the starting line-up, centre Bundee Aki replaces the injured Robbie Henshaw in midfield, with flanker CJ Stander and winger Keith Earls the other men recalled by Farrell.

Meanwhile, Bath-born Burns, whose older brother Freddie earned five caps for England, has been named among the replacements against the country of his birth.

There are five players who qualified via residency starting for Ireland: Aki, Gibson-Park and wing James Lowe were all born in New Zealand, while 2017 Lion CJ Stander and second row Quinn Roux both moved to Ireland as project players from South Africa. Burns qualifies via his parental Cork-born grandfather.

Lock Iain Henderson and full-back Jacob Stockdale are back among the replacements after fitness issues kept them sidelined last week.

Winger Andrew Conway and flanker Josh van der Flier – who started the win over Wayne Pivac’s men – drop out of the squad completely.

Caelan Doris, who was man of the match against Wales, retains his place at No 8, with Stander coming in at blindside flanker and Peter O’Mahony switching sides to the No 7 position vacated by Van der Flier.

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