It's Ireland v Japan at the Aviva on Saturday. The visit of the Brave Blossoms provides Andy Farrell and his coaching staff with the perfect opportunity to get a win against a strong side while also trying out some new combinations.
Japan are not as dangerous a side outside of a World Cup, but they ran Ireland very close when they were beaten 39-31 in a pulsating end to end encounter last July.
While it was an exciting game for the fans, the Irish team were very loose at times, and it will be essential to have a solid set-piece this weekend against the high-tempo Japanese side.
Ireland cannot take the Brave Blossoms lightly but must try out new combinations with the World Cup in mind. Therefore a strong XV with a selection of young blood and returning faces is what's needed.
The Ireland XV we want to see for Ireland v Japan
Fullback: Simon Zebo
Make no mistake, Hugo Keenan is still Ireland’s first choice fullback. However, Zebo will provide needed competition for the Leinster man, and Saturday’s game is the perfect opportunity to get the Munster showman back into international arena.
His playmaking ability will also be a massive asset, and we may see him deployed on the wing at some point over the series.
Right Wing: Keith Earls
One of the most consistent players under Andy Farrell, and continuing to age like fine wine, the unanimously popular Earls will provide experience in a new-look backline.
Outside Centre: Garry Ringrose
After a disappointing season last year, which culminated with him not making the Lions tour, Ringrose will be looking to bounce back for Ireland as soon as possible.
We know how elusive and dangerous he is at his best, and he will provide the perfect amount of guile to McCloskey or Aki’s ballast.
Inside Centre: Stuart McCloskey
It feels like a lifetime ago that the powerful Ulsterman made a magnificent debut in Twickenham in 2016. Since then he has continued to produce high-quality displays for Ulster, despite not getting much of an opportunity at international level.
His Irish appearances have been sporadic starts against lower-tier nations where it is hard to gauge performance levels. One feels that a start against either Japan or Argentina will be a golden opportunity but also last chance saloon to challenge Aki and Henshaw for the 12 jersey.
Left Wing: Robert Baloucoune
Wing is has been an area of weakness for Ireland in recent times, with Conway, Larmour, and Stockdale struggling for form last season, and James Lowe experiencing a less-than-ideal start to his international career.
On the other hand Baloucoune has been in impressive form for Ulster since coming back last year after a lengthy layoff, and scored a world-class solo try on his Irish debut against the USA last July.
Not only has Baloucoune thoroughly earned his start, but you would back him to thrive if he gets game time on Saturday.
Outhalf: Johnny Sexton
Despite the need to blood new players, it is imperative that Ireland get a win. Usually a key element to Ireland winning is Sexton starting, and if Casey is to play inside him (see below) then starting Ireland’s captain will be the first name on the team sheet.
Ideally Ireland will have built a lead on the weekend, and reduce the risk of bringing on Carberry with twenty minutes to go.
Scrumhalf: Craig Casey
With Murray having only 21 minutes under his belt this season it is likely that either Casey or Gibson-Park will start on Saturday. Unlike Sexton, Murray is also not the immovable object he once was, as we saw on the recent Lions Tour, and this series is an ideal opportunity for a new nine to take the jersey off him ahead of next year's Six Nations.
Loosehead Prop: Andrew Porter
Although only making the move back to being a regular loosehead this season, Porter has looked extremely comfortable, and will more than likely start in what will more than likely be Ireland’s front row in the Six Nations.
Hooker: Rónan Kelleher
The only part of Kelleher’s game holding him back from being among the top hookers in the world is the accuracy of his darts. Although the ever impressive Herring would be a safer option for the weekend, it is important for Irish rugby that Kelleher gets tested in these environments.
Tighthead Prop: Tadhg Furlong
Nothing much to be said about Ireland’s greatest ever tighthead. We do however need a backup if Porter is to be a regular loosehead, and the in-form Tom O’Toole deserves a shot off the bench.
Loosehead Lock: Iain Henderson
The two time Lions tourist will be essential to Ireland’s lineout, and will help ease the pressure on Kelleher.
Tighthead Lock: James Ryan
A lot has been said about Ryan’s last season. He went from a nailed on Lions tourist to a player who could not even make it as an injury replacement.
It is a massive year for him and you would back him and his character to get back to the huge heights of 2018.
Blindside Flanker: Tadhg Beirne
Doris deserves a start as much as Beirne, as do Conan and Coombes. It is the biggest selection headache Farrell will face in this Autumn Series, but the second row/ number six ,and Ireland’s stand out performer last season, will provide extra solidity in the lineout.
Openside Flanker: Josh Van Der Flier
The only regular number seven in the squad, although Nick Timoney has been getting more game time there for Ulster in recent weeks, Van Der Flier will be pivotal to slowing down Japanese ruck ball, chopping down their carriers, and preventing them from playing at the fast-tempo they excel at.
Number Eight: Gavin Coombes
Jack Conan and Caelan Doris are equally deserving of a start, but I would argue Coombes was the most in- form player in the country last season, and he has begun his 2021-22 campaign in similar fashion.
He looked physically dominant against Leinster in the 2021 Pro14 final, and against Toulouse in last year’s Champions Cup round of 16 game. When Farrell came calling in July, he again produced the goods.
A mix of youth, experience, and a lot of explosiveness. The most unpredictable position will be the back row, and anyone combination of Coombes, Conan, Doris, and Beirne could make the match day squad.
Murray will provide a calming presence if Carberry or Harry Byrne get minutes, and Frawley’s versatility makes him the perfect bench option.
The team we want to see vs Japan:
15. Simon Zebo
14. Keith Earls
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Robert Baloucoune
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Craig Casey
1. Andrew Porter
2. Rónan Kelleher
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. Tadhg Beirne
7. Josh Van Der Flier
8. Gavin Coombes
Bench: Kilcoyne, Sheehan, O’Toole, Baird, Doris, Murray, Carberry, Frawley.