Ireland is wringing the last ounce of skills and leadership out of Jonathan Sexton before he retires. Meanwhile, in the search for a flyhalf heir to guide the team at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the spotlight is on Billy Burns.
Following brief but bright cameo appearances against Wales and England this month, Burns is starting for the first time in a test against Georgia on Sunday at Lansdowne Road in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Ireland should put away the Lelos, who have been blanked by England and Wales, so coach Andy Farrell is using the third-round match to confirm who has the right stuff.
Burns might have started against England last week but for a head injury against Wales. Ross Byrne started, instead, and was unproductive. Burns replaced him and set up Ireland’s only try, a chip over the top scooped up by scorer Jacob Stockdale.
Stockdale, whom Farrell is trying to turn into a fullback with Rob Kearney gone and Jordan Larmour injured, said the try was a happy accident but no surprise.
“I had called a short line because I thought we maybe had an opportunity to go wide against them,” Stockdale said. "Billy just spotted a bit of space in the middle of the pitch and then he made the call for the chip. Whenever he calls those kicks, you are expecting them to be on the money. He always gives an opportunity to play outside him.”
Burns is the third brother to play test rugby. Older siblings Freddie played for England and Sam for Cyprus. Billy left Gloucester, where he was established, for Ulster two years ago, committed himself and qualified for Ireland thanks to a Cork-born grandfather. A year after Ireland called, his playing chance has come thanks to the absence of all three of their Rugby World Cup flyhalves: Sexton (hamstring), Joey Carbery (ankle) and Jack Carty (form). Byrne is backing him up this weekend.
“It's (Burns') opportunity to grab a hold of the team and the game, and run the show," Farrell said.
Burns has Ulster mates in the backline. Beside Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey has been given his first cap in two years at inside center.
McCloskey debuted against England in the 2016 Six Nations, then had one-off starts against Fiji in 2017 and the United States in 2018. He's in while Bundee Aki is rested and Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are injured.
“I just want to get a decent opportunity at putting my foot forward and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out,” McCloskey said. "At least I can go off knowing I've given it my best shot, but I know I haven't given it my best shot so far.
"Looking back on it, I just wish I'd put more of a mark on it in my first game, against England. Maybe I just tried to fit in too much.”
Finlay Bealham debuted in the same 2016 Six Nations and has received 13 caps, mainly as a backup prop. This time, Farrell wants to see how the tighthead fares at loosehead in his first start since 2018.
Also, Munster fullback Shane Daly, in the reserves, could become the 10th new cap in Farrell’s first year.
“You don't come with a plan saying, ‘We’re going to cap 10 players.’ Opportunity arises for players regarding injury, etc,” Farrell said. "We're glad to grow the pool and find out about people.”
Georgia is doing the same. It has two uncapped players in the reserves: Scrumhalf Mikheil Alania, who turned 20 last week, and fullback David Niniashvili, aged 18.
Alania will follow in the footsteps of his father Kakha, who played Ireland at Lansdowne Road in 2002.
“I am very excited and, to be honest, a little nervous,” Alania said. ”I am about to play against the players I've been watching on TV.”
Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan, Chris Farrell, Stuart McCloskey, Keith Earls, Billy Burns, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Will Connors, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan (captain), Iain Henderson, Andrew Porter, Rob Herring, Finlay Bealham. Reserves: Dave Heffernan, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Quinn Roux, Peter O’Mahony, Kieran Marmion, Ross Byrne, Shane Daly.
Georgia: Soso Matiashvili, Akaki Tabutsadze, Giorgi Kveseladze, Merab Sharikadze (captain), Tamaz Mchedlidze, Tedo Abzhandadze, Vasil Lobzhanidze; Beka Gorgadze, Tornike Jalagonia, Beka Saginadze, Lasha Jaiani, Nodar Cheishvili, Beka Gigashvili, Shalva Mamukashvili, Mikheil Nariashvili. Reserves: Giorgi Chkoidze, Lexo Kaulashvili, Giorgi Melikidze, Giorgi Javakhia, Mikheil Gachechiladze, Mikheil Alania, Demur Tapladze, David Niniashvili.
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