Sexton returns for Ireland as captain against Russia
For once, Ireland is quite happy to have a short turnaround, playing just five days after its last Rugby World Cup match.
To the Irish, the sooner they get to kick off against Russia on Thursday under the roof in Kobe, the sooner they can expunge the taste of their loss to Japan.
The 19-12 defeat to the tournament host last Saturday, their first ever to Japan, was a massive downer. All the more so because the Irish thought they were peaking nicely and wouldn’t be so dominated as they were in Fukuroi.
Coach Joe Schmidt lamented his side stepping back after leading 12-3, but he also didn’t believe his team’s discipline was as bad as it looked. He rued four penalty calls against them for offside but, according to Schmidt, feedback from the referees showed three of the calls were incorrect, and two were made by assistant referee Jerome Garces, who will be the match referee on Thursday.
“We know we’re going to have to be on our best behavior,” Schmidt says. “One thing I would say about this team is that they try to go out and deliver and, generally speaking, it’s unusual for us to have a higher penalty count than our opponents.”
What he wants against the Russians is more of the first quarter against Japan, getting on the front foot and setting up their moves. By necessity, with the Russians coming only five days after the Japanese, he’s freshened the team by making 11 changes to the starting lineup.
Fullback Rob Kearney passed concussion protocols to be one of the four starters retained, alongside flanker Peter O’Mahony, center Garry Ringrose, and wing Keith Earls. Ringrose was given a third straight start because Robbie Henshaw was still rehabilitating his hamstring issue and Chris Farrell was concussed.
Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, rested against Japan because of a sore thigh, will mark his 86th cap with the captaincy of Ireland for the first time.
“It’s something that I’ve thought about since I was a kid, something I’ve made a lot of decisions around, trying to get there one day,” Sexton says. “It has taken a while but it was worth the wait and I’m incredibly proud.
“I want to be captain now of a good performance and a good win in a World Cup game, so that’s my main focus — I don’t think anything changes really for me. I have a big responsibility in the team anyway so nothing has changed.”
Regular captain and hooker Rory Best has been rested along with props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong. Ireland’s most capped front row has made 15 starts together but was shaded by Japan.
New lock Jean Kleyn makes his first World Cup appearance, and Jordi Murphy, summoned this week as a replacement in the squad for the injured Jack Conan, is straight into the action at No. 8. Also, Joey Carbery, normally a flyhalf, has agreed to be the backup scrumhalf and “feels comfortable,” kicking coach Richie Murphy says.
After its own short turnaround of playing Japan and Samoa within five days, the winless Russians have also freshened up with nine changes to their starting lineup. The only six starters retained for a third straight Pool A match were prop Kirill Gotovtsev, lock Bogdan Fedotko, flanker Tagir Gadzhiev, midfielder Kirill Golosnitskiy, wing German Davydov, and fullback and captain Vasily Artemyev.
Russia has impressed until its lack of fitness showed in costly third quarters against Japan and Samoa. Coach Lyn Jones says his side is even more motivated to play the Irish, its best opponent since it last met them in the 2011 World Cup.
“We understand what Tier One teams are doing when they play Tier Two sides, and the challenge for us is to make sure that we make life as difficult for Ireland and to score as many tries as we can,” Jones says.
“We witnessed zero points from Samoa, and more and more emphasis now in Tier One versus Tier Two games is not so much about Tier One scoring as many points but stopping Tier Two from scoring. So the challenge for us is to buck the trend and to score as many points as we can.”