Maynooth, Ireland, Sept 5 (AFP/APP):World player of the year Jonathan Sexton will play his first competitive match since the end of May in Ireland’s final Rugby World Cup warm-up match against Wales on Saturday.
The match offers both a final chance for some players to make an impression and break into the starting XV for the opening game in Japan and also an emotional final home Test for both head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best.
“It is not something I have given a lot of thought about it was only when I came off the training pitch this morning and some woman was in tears saying this is the last time you walk off here,” said Best on Thursday.
“It is going to be a really big occasion when I look back on it but ultimately it is that the team performs and takes a massive step forward,” added 37-year-old Best, who will win his 120th cap.
For the ultra-competitive Sexton, who has not played since Leinster’s victory in the Pro14 final, it will be a much-needed run out.
The 34-year-old fly-half sat out the three previous warm-up Tests with a thumb injury. Ireland beat Italy and Wales either side of a humiliating 57-15 loss to England at Twickenham.
Schmidt was able to audition Ross Byrne and Jack Carty for the role of understudy to Sexton and second choice playmaker Joey Carbery, injured in the victory over the Italians but expected to be fit for the World Cup.
Carty edged Byrne and will be on the replacements bench on Saturday.
Having given other players a chance to state their case for the World Cup squad in the 22-17 win over the Welsh last Saturday, Schmidt has named a side packed with experience.
Schmidt gives wing Keith Earls and centre Robbie Henshaw their first appearances in the warm-up games.
Rob Kearney is recalled at fullback and scrum-half Conor Murray is reunited in the formidable half-back partnership with Sexton.
Schmidt will step down after the World Cup having overseen a golden era for the national side in his six year tenure.
South Africa-born Jean Kleyn — a slightly controversial pick for the World Cup squad having only become eligible to play for Ireland at the beginning of August through the three year residency rule — wins his third cap packing down with James Ryan in the second row.
“Last game,” said defence coach Andy Farrell. “We are after a performance to be proud of with it being Rory and Joe’s last matches at the Aviva,” said defence coach Andy Farrell.
“We want a cohesive performance,” added Farrell, who takes over from Schmidt after the World Cup.
The Irish fly to Japan on Wednesday and get their World Cup campaign — bidding to better a record of never getting past the quarter-finals — against Scotland on September 22 in Yokohama.
Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander; Jean Kleyn, James Ryan; Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (capt), Cian Healy
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Iain Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Jack Carty, Garry Ringrose
Coach: Joe Schmidt (NZL)