Stuart McCloskey has been backed as a “great replacement” after injury deprived Ireland of “world-class” Robbie Henshaw on the eve of Saturday’s showdown with South Africa.
Ulster’s McCloskey will step in at inside centre against the world champions to win his first international cap since July 2021 and just a seventh in total.
Henshaw was set to partner Leinster team-mate Garry Ringrose in midfield before he missed training on Friday morning and was subsequently ruled out by a hamstring issue, which is not thought to be too serious.
📋 Team Update.
Robbie Henshaw has been unfortunately ruled out of tomorrow’s game through injury.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) November 4, 2022
McCloskey made his Test debut in 2016 but has struggled to command a regular spot due to the form of Henshaw, Ringrose and the suspended Bundee Aki.
Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell praised the 30-year-old’s patience and believes he is ready to make his mark for Andy Farrell’s men.
“I’m very confident about Stuart,” said O’Connell. “Andy is obviously disappointed and we’re all disappointed to miss out on Robbie. He’s a world-class player, playing very well.
“But Stuart has had some tough days where he has been up here training and a coach has had to have a conversation with him before the team is announced and that has happened an awful lot.
“He’s always stuck with it and seems to be getting better and better and better as a player and never disheartened.
“For Stuart to come in and play it just broadens the group again for us and we’re really confident in his ability and his smarts, the experience he has in that position, it’s a great replacement.”
Head coach Farrell has added Leinster’s Jimmy O’Brien to his bench for the visit of the Springboks.
McCloskey has only once before partnered Ringrose, a 57-14 win over the United States four years ago in which he claimed one of eight Irish tries.
His most recent Test outings came 16 months ago – Dublin victories over the USA and Japan – when Henshaw and Aki were away with the British and Irish Lions and Ringrose was undergoing shoulder surgery, while he featured against the Maori All Blacks during this summer’s tour of New Zealand.
With next year’s World Cup in France fast approaching, O’Connell emphasised the importance of squad depth for the team currently topping the global rankings.
“The whole Emerging Ireland tour (this summer), trying to get the game against New Zealand A (today), it’s all about getting competition for places,” he said.
“It’s all about getting people into the room so that all the players know who the competition is, all the players know they have a shot of getting picked and making it to the World Cup.”
Ireland take on the Springboks for the first time since a 38-3 win in 2017.
Former captain O’Connell is looking forward to the challenge.
“We haven’t played them in so long and there seemed to be a period there where we played them every year,” said the 43-year-old.
“I think you find out about yourselves whenever you play South Africa, so it’s going to be a brilliant challenge.”