Returning Johnny Sexton ready to hit ground running in World Cup opener

By Sports Desk September 07, 2023

Captain Johnny Sexton insists there will be “no excuses” if he fails to perform in Ireland’s World Cup opener against Romania as he prepares to make his first competitive appearance in almost six months.

Fly-half Sexton missed his country’s three warm-up matches through suspension, having not played since injuring a groin in helping clinch the Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam against England on March 18.

The 38-year-old will make his long-awaited comeback as a starter on Saturday afternoon in Bordeaux and has been targeting the fixture since being hit with his ban in mid-July.

“I’m delighted to be back,” said Sexton.

“Playing for Ireland is always special, it’s extra special when it comes to the World Cup, so I’m very, very happy to be back in the team and really looking forward to it.

“Hopefully I can go out and play well and have a good performance. I expect that of myself. There are no excuses in that regard.

“Once I got over the injury obviously came the three games off and once I knew that was there I’ve just been focused on this game for the last couple of months. Looking forward to it now and finally getting back out on the pitch.”

Sexton will partner Leinster team-mate Jamison Gibson-Park in a strong XV packed with first-choice stars.

Rookie lock Joe McCarthy, who will make only his second Test start, is a notable exception, while Rob Herring has been given the nod at hooker ahead of Ronan Kelleher in the absence of the injured Dan Sheehan.

Sexton, who is at the fourth World Cup of his distinguished career ahead of retirement, admits there is a mix of nerves and excitement in the Ireland camp.

“I’m sure the Irish will travel like they always do and it’s a very different atmosphere to what you normally get at rugby matches,” he said.

“It’s very much like a soccer World Cup atmosphere, the ones I’ve been involved in to date, and we’re looking forward to that. But also with that comes a bit of nerves.

“We’ve built to this moment for the last four years so now it’s finally here the nerves come in, but it’s about embracing them and going out and trying to play our best.”

Ireland begin the tournament at the top of the world rankings amid a record 13-match winning run.

Wing Mack Hansen has been given the weekend off, while reigning world player of the year Josh van der Flier is the other significant absentee from the starting line-up, having been named among the replacements.

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Head coach Andy Farrell says it is “full steam ahead” as his Six Nations champions seek to begin with a bang.

“We’ve got a squad of 33 that we totally believe in and whatever side we put out is going to be a good side,” he said.

“No matter what side we pick, it’s going to be one that’s threatening and a determined one at that.

“Our mindset at this stage is full steam ahead. We expect a fantastic performance at the weekend to kick us off in the right manner.”

Van der Flier’s demotion to the bench results in Peter O’Mahony shuffling across to openside flanker and Tadhg Beirne moving into the back row at blindside to accommodate McCarthy in the second row.

The 22-year-old McCarthy, one of 10 World Cup debutants in Ireland’s matchday squad, only made his international debut last autumn and has just 129 minutes of Test experience across three caps.

“He deserves it with the form that he’s shown, not just in the games that he’s played, but also in his preparation over the last 10, 11 weeks,” said Farrell.

“He’s really progressed his game and he gets an opportunity to start in the first game of the World Cup.”

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