Suddenly, with the completion of Ireland’s Grand Slam, time is running out for those on the outside of the squad if they are to make the 33-man cut for the World Cup.
Ireland have no more competitive matches between now and then, so any of those not involved in this year’s Six Nations effectively have only their end-of-season provincial campaigns in which to press their claims.
The players will then have three weeks holidays before a squad of circa 45 to 50 players will assemble for preseason World Cup training towards the end of June. So that is the cut-off point before the squad of 33 for the World Cup is finalised after three warm-up games against Italy on August 5th, England on August 19th and Samoa in Bayonne on August 26th.
The deadline for submitting World Cup squads is Monday, August 28th, but you’d imagine that Andy Farrell and co will have a fair idea of the squad’s make-up by those three games.
In any event, for outside backs like Rob Baloucoune, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour, they need a strong end of season run-in, and Conway remains sidelined.
As ever, the backrow permutations are endless, and as this is normally the area with the highest attrition rate, presumably at least six or seven loose forwards, allowing for some versatility in the back five of the pack, will be brought to the World Cup.
Based on last season’s tour to New Zealand, the first six in the backrow pecking order would appear to have been Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Nick Timoney and Gavin Coombes.
But Coombes was temporarily usurped during this season’s Autumn Series by Max Deegan, before his strong form, improved fitness and game involvements with Munster earned him a recall. The problem for Coombes is that he’s competing with two number ‘8s’ of Lions stature in Doris and Conan, although a couple of run-outs in the secondrow with Munster would have helped his cause.
Timoney was overtaken by Scott Penny during the Six Nations, only for the latter to pick up a knock and Timoney to be recalled. This is an interesting one given, as things stand, there is no obvious alternative to Josh van der Flier. There hasn’t needed to be, mind.
The World Player of the Year has started 15 of Ireland’s last 16 Test matches (he was rested against Fiji, when Timoney started) dating back to the start of last year’s Six Nations. Furthermore, he has played 80 minutes in all 15 bar the last eight minutes of the Third Test in Wellington.
John Hodnett appears to be further down the pecking order and, ala the aforementioned wingers, he probably not only needs a run of games but for Munster to advance deep into the knock-out stages of both the Champions Cup and the URC. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Were a replacement ever needed at ‘7′ in the Irish team during a game, O’Mahony would be the obvious candidate, and it could yet be that this will be among his designated roles at the World Cup.
Another player for whom a strong provincial run would be beneficial is Cian Prendergast. He can play across the backrow and has also been looked at in the secondrow by the Irish management, whose investment in Prendergast also includes the games against the Maori All Blacks, the Emerging Ireland tour (where he captained the side in Bloemfontein) and the game against the All Blacks XV, as well as remaining in squad training throughout the Six Nations.
Timoney is possibly the most like-for-like alternative, but all things being equal, and but for his injuries over the past two years, Will Connors would be in pole position. Farrell and co clearly like Connors’ physicality, chop-tackling and carrying game, and with good reason.
Indeed, after coming on as a replacement for Van der Flier in the opening Six Nations defeats by Wales and France only two years ago, Connors started both the wins over Italy (scoring two tries) and Scotland. He was the man in situ.
Who knows how things might have panned out but for the knee injury, the 26-year-old Kildare man suffered in training on the Wednesday of the final week before the England game. Van der Flier came back into the team and with Connors still sidelined, began reinventing himself as a dynamic, ball-carrying, all court openside.
Meanwhile, Connors didn’t play again that season as he underwent an operation, since when he’s also had to undergo surgery for an injury to his bicep which he suffered in only his second start since that fateful final week of the 2021 Six Nations, against the Sharks on October 8th.
Furthermore, in his absence, Penny has taken his game to a new level since making a belated Champions Cup debut as a replacement against Racing 92 in January. Hence, Connors is on the bench again tonight against the Stormers at the RDS, with Penny starting, and as Van der Flier is likely to remain Leinster’s go-to openside in the big Champions Cup games, it’s difficult to see how Connors – denied a run of matches with which to find some rhythm – will simply be granted the game time to remind Farrell and co of his qualities.
Suddenly time is running out all right.
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