Andy Farrell believes strength in depth will be key to Ireland’s World Cup hopes

By Sports Desk August 03, 2023

Andy Farrell insists squad depth will be key to Ireland achieving their dream of World Cup glory after handing opportunities to a number of fringe players for Saturday’s warm-up clash with Italy.

Munster’s Jack Crowley has been selected at fly-half in the absence of the suspended Johnny Sexton, with uncapped trio Ciaran Frawley, Tom Stewart and Calvin Nash among the replacements.

Just three players – centre Robbie Henshaw and back-rowers Caelan Doris and Ryan Baird – have been retained from the XV which began Ireland’s Grand Slam-clinching win over England back in March.

Ulster lock Iain Henderson will captain the side, lining up in the second row alongside Joe McCarthy, who will make his first international start, while wing Jacob Stockdale will play at Test level for the first time in two years.

Head coach Farrell, who is due to cut his 42-man squad down to a final 33 following further fixtures against England and Samoa, wants a full complement of players fit and firing moving towards the tournament in France but dismissed the notion he is experimenting.

“We’re at a stage where we’re all gagging for a game,” he said.

“And you are judging constantly how preparation’s going and trying to balance that out with a side that’s got the experience and youth.

“I’m 100 per cent sure there are some individuals that will take the field saying to themselves that ‘this a big chance and big opportunity for me’.

“You’ve got to surround those people with good enough experienced players as well to be able to judge them properly, so we’re looking forward to that.

“I wouldn’t say we’re experimenting.

“You win World Cups because of the strength of your squad so we’re trying to find out about people that have done so well to get picked in the initial 42 and now they’ve got the opportunity to represent the group.

“They know the expectation of how we want to play and what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

Sexton’s three-match ban has opened the door for rookie number 10s Crowley, Frawley and Ross Byrne to gain some much-needed Test experience during the next month.

In-form Crowley is the first to be handed an opportunity to impress, having starred during his province’s United Rugby Championship success at the end of last season.

“He has been excellent but how that transfers into a performance is different,” Farrell said of Crowley.

“He has been going great. I have seen his confidence grow, obviously from what happened with Munster, being able to help navigate his team through those difficult periods and get some success.

“The minute that selection comes, it’s a different week as far as managing the team and being the main general as far as Jack is concerned.

“We have been keeping a close eye on that and he has been excellent so far.”

Farrell was speaking publicly for the first time since Sexton, who has not played since the Guinness Six Nations due to injury, was hit with a three-match ban for misconduct.

“He’s been all systems go, right from the start,” the Englishman said of his 38-year-old skipper’s performances in training.

“He’s not missed a session, he’s not dropped out of anything. If there was a game two or three weeks ago, he was able to play, no doubt.

“Obviously he’s disappointed not to be able to play in these games but he’s in great form.”

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