Kidney hands flame to Sexton to light up World Cup route

Irish coach drops fly-half O'Gara and makes three injury-enforced changes

Ireland, paragons of continuity since Declan Kidney succeeded Eddie O'Sullivan as head coach in the fall-out from a destructive Six Nations Championship in 2008, yesterday found themselves being railroaded into changes ahead of this weekend's meeting with England. Yet the most significant change of all – Jonathan Sexton for Ronan O'Gara at stand-off – was purely a matter of choice. It marked a passing of the flame at No 10 and lit up the road leading to next year's World Cup in New Zealand.

O'Gara has contributed more than 500 points to the Irish cause in Six Nations rugby, but his defensive frailties against the French in Paris last time out persuaded Kidney to back the bolder, more imaginative Sexton, despite his relative inexperience. The 24-year-old Dubliner would have started the tournament but for injury and has been on the coach's World Cup radar for some time, but given the importance of Saturday's contest no one would have died of shock had the vote gone to the man with 95 caps rather than the man with three.

Kidney, who coached O'Gara to considerable heights at Munster, made three further changes to his starting line-up, summoning the Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy for the injured Rob Kearney, recalling the Ulster hooker Rory Best for the suspended Jerry Flannery and reinstalling Donncha O'Callaghan at lock. O'Callaghan replaces Leo Cullen, who drops to the bench.

Murphy's reappearance in national colours is something of a gamble. He has played precious little serious rugby since suffering a shoulder injury in September, and had the weather forecast for the weekend been a little less end-of-the-worldish, Kidney might have backed the exciting Keith Earls in the No 15 position.

Explaining his choice of Sexton over O'Gara, the coach said: "We're blessed with two great outside-halves: one with a huge amount of experience, the other up-and-coming and yet to prove himself. I see this as an opportunity to give the younger man a go." If the newcomer brings the best of his passing game to bear England could find themselves in trouble. A back division featuring runners as dangerous as Earls, Tommy Bowe, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll has plenty going for it.

The visitors look formidably strong in the loose-forward department, too. The open-side flanker David Wallace and the No 8 Jamie Heaslip were first-choice Test picks for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa last summer, and had the blind-side specialist Stephen Ferris stayed fit, he would have found himself mixing it with the Springboks, too.

"England are always strong: they're hard to break down and don't concede many tries," Kidney remarked. Martin Johnson's team will do well to achieve one of their shut-outs on Saturday.

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