The dust has barely settled on a memorable 2022-23 season, with Munster still in celebratory mode, than the 2023 Rugby World Cup will loom into view. By midafternoon on Tuesday, Andy Farrell’s expanded training squad of circa 43 players, with a maximum of 45, for the pre-tournament preparations which begin on June 18th, will be unveiled.
Hence, this is something of a landmark day, not least for those who will still be able to harbour ambitions of reaching the four-yearly jamboree in France and those already resigned to not making it.
Given Farrell and his assistants named a 37-man squad for the Six Nations and added another 11 players during the course of that Grand Slam campaign, some seriously good players are going to receive some disappointing news.
Furthermore, several others missed out on the Six Nations who had been on the New Zealand tour and/or featured in the Autumn Nations Series, namely Jeremy Loughman, Dave Heffernan, Harry Byrne, James Hume, Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune and Calvin Nash.
So essentially, Farrell and his assistants are picking circa 43 players from a pool of 55 who they’ve had in training camps this past season, and that doesn’t include others who were in the A squad for the game against an All Blacks XV, or the early-season Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa.
Viewed in that light, while Munster’s brilliant United Rugby Championship success may help cement one or two of their player’s places in the squad, it may ultimately prove too late for someone such as John Hodnett, despite his outstanding form in the drive for their first title in 12 years.
It’s doubtful any Irish squad of around 43 players has ever been harder to muscle in on.
A prime example is hooker, where the established trio are Dan Sheehan, Rónan Kelleher and Rob Herring. If there is to be a fourth, and that’s one position where it would appear like a good idea, then Ulster’s uncapped Tom Stewart appears be ahead of Heffernan, Niall Scannell and Diarmuid Barron, despite the latter’s form for Munster of late.
As in the Munster pecking order, Loughman has usurped Dave Kilcoyne and is likely to be named along with Andrew Porter, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham and Tom O’Toole on the premise that there will be at least six props.
Presuming there will be the same number of locks, then in addition to James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson and Ryan Baird, Joe McCarthy looks sure to be included given only injuries have limited his exposure with Leinster and Ireland to date, and likewise Kieran Treadwell.
Farrell and co have also been fairly clearcut in their choices of backrowers. Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris and Jack Conan are cast in stone, while the form of squad regulars Gavin Coombes and Cian Prendergast has surely cemented their place.
If there’s room for one or two more forwards, they’re liable to come from backrowers such as Scott Penny, Nick Timoney, Max Deegan and the aforementioned Hodnett, with Penny’s call-up in the Six Nations suggesting he’s the next cab on the rank.
Similarly, if Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray and Craig Casey are to be joined by a fourth scrumhalf, which would also seem like a good idea, then Caolin Blade’s call-up to the Six Nations training squad, when 24th men in the opening two rounds, points to him being included.
Jack Crowley’s composure and performances in the URC semi-final and final are a timely confidence boost for him as well as an encouraging development for the Ireland team. It may well be that Johnny Sexton, Ross Byrne and Crowley are the three specialist outhalves named, and if there is to a be a fourth, per se, the versatile Ciarán Frawley appears ahead of the out of favour Joey Carbery or Harry Byrne.
The midfield options are likely to be the tried and trusted quartet of Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Stuart McCloskey, all the more so given James Hume’s only involvement since the New Zealand tour was in that A game last November.
The composition of the outside backs may well have caused most discussion among the coaches. In part because of the relatively high casualty rate there in the past 12 months, fully 11 outside backs have featured in the Autumn and Six Nations squads, and that’s not including the in-form Shane Daly, who played in that A game, or the injured Andrew Conway.
Obviously, Hugo Keenan, James Lowe and Mack Hansen are nailed on, Jimmy O’Brien most probably too. Keith Earls, who has enjoyed a timely little resurgence, is also highly valued – witness his central contract until the conclusion of the World Cup.
Jordan Larmour offers X-factor and versatility, as does the talented Jamie Osborne, albeit he’s uncapped, and it’s hard to imagine this expanded squad not featuring Baloucoune, the best finisher in Irish rugby and one of the few Ulster players to shine in their anticlimactic seasonal end.
In this scenario, Nash may or not make it, and ditto Jacob Stockdale, even if his inclusion in the Six Nations squad suggests Farrell and co still believe he can recapture his 2018 form.
The squad will assemble in just three weeks’ time, with a further week’s rest built into the preseason, which will then feature games against Italy on August 5th and England on August 19th in the Aviva Stadium, before Ireland play Samoa in Bayonne on August 26th.
The 33-man squad for the World Cup be announced two days later, on Monday, August 28th, with Ireland’s first Pool A tie against Romania in Bordeaux on Saturday, September 9th.
Possible Ireland World Cup training squad
Hookers: Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Tom Stewart (Ulster).
Props: Andrew Porter (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Jeremy Loughman (Munster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Tom O’Toole (Ulster).
Locks: James Ryan (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster).
Backrows: Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Gavin Coombes (Munster), Cian Prendergast (Connacht), Nick Timoney (Ulster) or Scott Penny (Leinster).
Scrumhalves: Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Craig Casey (Munster), Caolin Blade (Connacht).
Outhalves: Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Jack Crowley (Munster), Ciarán Frawley (Leinster).
Centres: Bundee Aki (Connacht), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster).
Outside backs: James Lowe (Leinster), Hugo Keenan (Leinster), Mack Hansen (Connacht), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Keith Earls (Munster), Jamie Osborne (Leinster), Rob Baloucoune (Ulster).