Andy Farrell claims it’s business as usual for Ireland despite losing eight players from last week’s 23 for the visit of new Six Nations favourites France on Sunday.
Farrell is down skipper Johnny Sexton, pack leader James Ryan, long-time scrum-half Conor Murray and Munster captain Peter O’Mahony for the Aviva Stadium clash.
Asked if it was a disruptive situation to make all those changes and to be without both Sexton and Murray for the first time since 2011 in the championship – a defeat to Wales – the Ireland head coach said: “Not for us. We are excited about it.
“We’ve obviously lost a few experienced players during the week but that is another man’s opportunity and the squad are all excited and united for the challenge at the weekend.
“It’s why you do these things. You try and have your fingers crossed along the way and things don’t quite go as you want from time to time.
“But that is why you give people the chance at international rugby and the squad is coming into play.”
“It has been challenging but these weeks are always challenging. We are a squad and we have been a squad since we met up and everyone swapping in and out.
“You always have what ifs in the back of your mind, and here we are. “
Ulster captain Iain Henderson will skipper the team for the first time. “He brings authority and calmness,” commented Farrell.
“That was one of the pleasing aspects to the game at the weekend against Wales. Going down to 14 men, there was a calmness through the team and Iain was central to all that.
“I’m sure he will lead the boys very well.”
Farrell explained that Sexton was ruled out of contention on Thursday as he struggled with the return to play protocols.
“He didn’t come through the HIA protocols, and James earlier in the week,” he said. “We just found out about Conor 15 mins ago.
“He went for a scan that he picked up yesterday in training.”
Farrell was unimpressed, to say the least, about the spotlight thrown on Sexton this week by two French neurologists, including Dr Francois Chermann, who later rowed back on his claim that the 35-year-old has had up to 30 concussions – a claim Sexton described as “inaccurate and hurtful”.
Farrell said: “Honestly, I thought it stunk on so many grounds. I’ll leave it at that.”
He explained why he has gone with Billy Burns, who was upset with himself for wasting a penalty that could have earned Ireland a victory in Wales last week, ahead of Ross Byrne as Sexton’s replacement at no 10.
“He’s been great,” said the Ireland boss. “He’s strong. Billy is a proper footballer and he realises it is what it is.
“I’ve had plenty of conversations with him, like I do with the rest of the team.
“You always try to help them find the reasons why and see how they are able to cope and move on and come Tuesday Billy has been absolutely fine. He has trained really well this week.”
“Everyone makes mistakes. It’s international rugby and the extent of that but he is a true pro and the team is right behind him. he has trained outstandingly this week.”
“You always look at yourselves regarding performance and selection and sure, along the way, there are always things you can look back on but you move forward on every occasion.
“This week we’ve had a few bumps on the road but there is no point in looking to past.
Rhys Ruddock also gets his chance in the back row, having not played at Test level since the World Cup.
Remarkably, at 30, this is the Leinster back row’s first Six Nations start.
“He’s been resilient, hasn’t he? He has had a few ups and downs with injuries and that and this is his first Six Nations start and there is a reason for that with the injuries,” remarked Farrell.
“He is resilient and he personified that in not getting selected the last year or two and by playing so well for his province.”
Uncapped Munster scrum-half Craig Casey takes his place on the bench and Farrell is backing him to do well if called upon as cover for Jamison Gibson-Park.
“He ha been top class,” he said.
“His energy and application, to want to get better, is second to none and says a lot for a kid coming into international rugby.
“The senior players have been blown away by his attitude so he deserves it”.