Normally when a squad is unveiled for an upcoming series or tournament, one of the main topics of conversation focuses around the hard luck stories, or those perhaps seen as unfortunate to miss out. It’s either a commentary on how well established the pecking order is and/or the lack of alternatives that there were actually very few surprises in the 40-man squad named by Andy Farrell for the upcoming five-match, three-test tour to New Zealand.
This was all the truer when it was confirmed that Ronan Kelleher, Robert Baloucoune and Andrew Conway had joined Dave Kilcoyne and Jack Carty on the list of those deemed hors de combat for this daunting assignment. That quintet are the only players from Ireland’s 37-man Six Nations squad plus the four players who were subsequently called up, to miss out on this tour.
Of the four who have been called up, Joe McCarthy and Cian Prendergast were each brought in to train with the squad during the Six Nations, while Harry Byrne is fit again and has been capped previously, and likewise Ciarán Frawley was named in the Irish squad for last year’s autumn series.
Harry Byrne’s older brother Ross is arguably the biggest loser of all, while Jack O’Donoghue must wonder what he has to do after his best season for Munster but as Andy Farrell said yesterday the backrow is the most competitive area of all. It was ever thus. Similarly, Alex Kendellen’s time will have to wait.
This is Ireland’s most daunting tour of the pro era, and perhaps ever, and after the cancellations of the proposed tours to Australia and Fiji due to the pandemic, will be invaluably informative for Farrell and his coaching staff in the countdown to the World Cup. That said, while it’s not a good time to be injured, the door isn’t closed yet and there’ll be winners and losers between now and France 2023.
The squad are having a three-day mini-camp, which started yesterday, in advance of their departure via three separate routes next Sunday and Monday, and Farrell said: “Along with staff, there are 70 of us going on this tour, the biggest tour that Ireland has ever done. It will need the energy of all 70 to make this happen the way that we want it to happen.”
“If two or three don’t believe then we’re not writing the history that we want to write. In that regard, I think it’s brilliant. We are just finding out more about ourselves.
“You know what, when it comes to the World Cup, I reckon we need around 40 players who are good enough to play knockout rugby. I’m talking about the quarter-final, semi-final, and final.
“We know who those teams could be in the quarter-final,” said Farrell in the near certainty that if Ireland do reach the knock-out stages either the hosts France or New Zealand will lie in wait.
“We need to find out about ourselves now, so therefore we can’t lose, we can’t lose. Some guys on this tour will fall by the wayside, some guys on this tour will flourish that we didn’t think would flourish because of the extreme pressure.
“I have no doubt some guys who didn’t make the tour will have an unbelievable preseason and start next season with a bang and work their way back into this.
“But we will find out a hell of a lot about ourselves on this tour and that’s why it is priceless to us.”
The addition of Connacht assistant coach Peter Wilkins to the ticket is testimony to the scale of the team and acknowledgment that the squad may briefly split in the week of that first Test.
“We have five coaches including myself and we will need all hands on deck,” said Farrell. “This is a Lions-esque tour, certainly for the first Test match week and with the Maoris in the third Test match week, so there are going to be many moving parts that are different, which is great in a way as well because it gets people out of their comfort zone.
“One team might be heading up to Hamilton while the other team is training (in Auckland), so we just need an extra pair of hands there.”
With that partly in mind, it’s a little surprising that Farrell and co didn’t look to increase Ireland’s depth chart in the problem position of prop, and perhaps hooker, and certainly with only six props and three players apiece in the specialist positions of hooker, scrumhalf and outhalf, they are liable to feel the strain of four or five games in three weeks more than, say, the 13 back-five forwards and the dozen centres cum outside backs.
There is a core of eight players with at least half a century of caps who have toured New Zealand before with Ireland a decade ago or the Lions five years ago, but they are all liable to feature in the first Test at a sold-out Eden Park.
Many of the five uncapped players and the dozen with less than 10 caps in the squad are liable to feature in the opening tour game against the Maori All Blacks in a fortnight’s time, Wednesday June 29th, in Hamilton.
“It’s an opportunity, the Maori game, because they pick their side tomorrow and I’ve no doubt it will be an experienced side and a very tough side at that. So the guys that get the chance to wear the green shirt for the first time on tour will know that they’re in a game, and that’s what we want. We want to see them under pressure, etc.
“But as far as there will be a Maori side and then a Test side it won’t be like that. Forty (players) is not enough. People are going to have to back up and that’s going to be strange for some of them. How they handle that is going to be important to us as well. We know what an emotional evening that’s going to be for the Maoris and people will put their hand up knowing they’ve got a chance to make the Test side.”
The uncapped quintet
Height: 6′ 1″
Weight: 118 kg
A product of Athy RFC, Blackrock, Leinster academy, Irish Under-20s and five seasons with Munster. “We see potential in Jeremy, but he’s got to make sure that he grabs his chance,” says Farrell. “I’d a chat with him this morning, actually, about the exact situation, and this is where he steps up to the plate or not.”
Height: 6′ 5″
A product of Newbridge College and Connacht academy, Prendergast is tough and athletic, starting 20 of 21 appearances this season. “We think he’s got the attitude, the nature to put his best foot forward and be himself on a tour like this. Where some lads would see it as a daunting task his mentality is completely different from that.”
Height: 6′ 6″
Specimens such as McCarthy don’t exactly fall off trees in Ireland, hence his fast-tracking from Trinity to a Leinster debut in January and this. “There’s tremendous potential there,” said Farrell. “Hopefully we’ll come away with a gem at the end of this tour with Joe.”
Height: 6′ 3″
Physically strong, footballer from Skerries, and mostly plays ‘12′, but on highlighting Frawley’s ability to play at ‘10′, ‘12′ or ‘15′, Farrell added: “There’s massive potential there, and we want to see that potential flourish under extreme pressure.”
Height: 6′ 0″
Another versatile player, be it back three or ‘13′, or even ‘10′, O’Brien has flourished after 7s detour and is a quick learner, according to Farrell. “He can play many positions, he’s got many aspects to his game that are pretty good and on a tour like this, people like that become an integral part of it.”
Ireland 2022 Summer Tour Squad
Scrumhalves: Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) 5 caps, Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 17 caps, Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) 96 caps.
Outhalves: Harry Byrne (Leinster/Lansdowne) 2 caps, Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 32 caps, Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 105 caps CAPTAIN.
Centres: Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians) 37 caps, Ciaran Frawley (Leinster/Skerries) uncapped, Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) 57 caps, James Hume (Ulster/Banbridge) 3 caps, Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD) 42 caps.
Outside backs: Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster) 96 caps, Mack Hansen (Connacht) 4 caps, Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 20 caps, Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 30 caps, James Lowe (Leinster) 12 caps, Michael Lowry (Ulster/Banbridge) 1 cap, Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster/Naas) uncapped.
Hookers: Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 6 caps, Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 26 caps, Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne) 7 caps.
Props: Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 23 caps, Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf) 57 caps, Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) 116 caps, Jeremy Loughman (Munster/Garryowen) uncapped, Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch), 2 caps, Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD) 43 caps.
Locks: Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 8 caps, Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne) 30 caps, Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) 68 caps, Joe McCarthy (Leinster/Dublin) uncapped, James Ryan (Leinster/UCD) 43 caps, Kieran Treadwell (Ulster/Ballymena) 5 caps.
Backrow: Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere) 27 caps, Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster) 2 caps, Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 17 caps, Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 84 caps, Cian Prendergast (Connacht) uncapped, Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge) 2 caps, Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 40 caps.
Ireland 2022 Summer Tour Fixtures
Maori All Blacks v Ireland
FMG Stadium, Hamilton, Wednesday 29th June, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
New Zealand v Ireland
Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday 2nd July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
New Zealand v Ireland
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, Saturday 9th July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
Maori All Blacks v Ireland
SKY Stadium, Wellington, Tuesday 12th July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
New Zealand v Ireland
SKY Stadium, Wellington, Saturday 16th July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)