Last week’s wounding defeat by England and the ensuing selection for today’s game against Wales in Cardiff suggests a few places in Ireland’s 31-man squad remain very much up for grabs.
Whereas most coaching tickets have already announced their World Cup squads or, in the case of Wales and Scotland will do so tomorrow and on Tuesday, Joe Schmidt will take World Rugby’s deadlines at their word.
Hence, as requested by the game’s governing body, Ireland will submit a 31-man squad to World Rugby – as much for administrative purposes – on Monday, subject to any injury issues arising from today’s game. But they will not confirm the squad until the day after meeting Wales in Dublin, Sunday, September 8th, which is World Rugby’s deadline for announcing squads publicly.
Plenty niggles at Schmidt, and uppermost among these is the restrictive nature of World Cup squads being limited to 31 players.
“I think it’s a very tight number that World Rugby limit you to. They talk about player welfare but we have a six-day turnaround into a five-day turnaround, and with 31 players that’s very complicated. I’m not saying that’s just tough for us. I think all the teams have tight turnarounds at stages,” he said.
It’s a more than reasonable point, and it’s not even that Schmidt is arguing the case for extending squads to the mid-30s.
“I think as a coach, you’d always love to have 34 but I think even just one more player would make a difference. I think 32 would make a difference because when you’ve got a five- or a four-day turnaround you know that you’ve got three specialist positions, hooker, scrumhalf and outhalf. If you take three hookers, which you are really bound to, you could take three scrumhalves and three outhalves but it’s very difficult so one of them is going to have to back up.
“Now he might start one and be on the bench on the other but then you get one injury to one of those players and say a guy gets replaced after 60 minutes, a guy gets an injury that’s going to keep him out for two weeks or say he gets a red card, you can’t replace him under the laws of World Rugby. So suddenly you’re squad size is 30 and you’ve only got one scrumhalf and he’s going to have to play the whole time.
“So try to solve those conundrums, if you could have 32 and have three scrumhalves and three outhalves and three hookers, plus you know you have to have five props because you can’t play a game of rugby without four qualified props. So as soon as you get a prop injury or prop suspension or even if a prop gets ill on the eve of a game you’ve got to have someone else who can play that position.
“So when you add all those numbers up you’re starting to get skinny in the back and second rows and a little bit skinny in the back five so I think 32 would help teams for sure.”
Again, it’s a very reasonable, well-argued point. But, limited to 31 players, as Schmidt effectively admitted, Ireland will again quite likely restrict themselves to five halfbacks, with one of them at least theoretically doubling up by covering both 9 and 10.
This was what happened at the 2015 World Cup, when Ireland brought two specialist scrumhalves, Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan (Isaac Boss was a replacement in quarter-final week for the injured Jared Payne) and three 10s, namely Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson. Madigan ostensibly covered scrumhalf as well, although was never required to do so.
There have been two relevant staging posts since then, the tour to the USA and Japan in the summer of 2016, and the tour to Australia in 2018. For the first of those, Ireland brought three scrumhalves in Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney, as well as two 10s in Joey Carbery and Paddy Jackson. Although Cooney has regularly switched to outhalf for Ulster, when Carbery was injured in the American leg of the tour, rather than call up a replacement, Rory Scannell (a fourth centre) covered outhalf, and replaced Jackson in the first Test against Japan.
For the Australian tour two summers ago, Schmidt brought 32 players, affording himself the luxury of a fifth lock cum backrower in an 18/14 split. He also included three scrumhalves (Murray, Marmion and Cooney) and three outhalves, Sexton, Carbery and Ross Byrne, while limiting the centres to three.
With another 17/14 split again virtually confirmed, all the signs this time are that Schmidt and co will revert to five halfbacks again to allow themselves elbow room elsewhere.
Schmidt has indicated that Carbery could even be fit for the final warm-up clash against Wales in Dublin next Saturday, and that in the worst-case scenario, the 24-year-old is in line to be ready to face Scotland in Ireland’s World Cup opener.
In that case, despite having started only three games since January, Carbery looks sure to be named in the squad. Aside from the investment in him over the last two years and his status as Sexton’s understudy, Carbery also covers fullback and, at a push, scrumhalf.
To all intents and purposes therefore, Marmion and Jack Carty have the opportunity in the Principality Stadium today to nail down places in the squad ahead of Luke McGrath and Byrne. The Connacht pair have looked ahead of their rivals in the pecking order, and strong showings this afternoon would make them hard to ignore.
That would leave nine more positions in the backs to be filled, and again today’s game looks like going some way towards finalising them.
In 2015, Ireland ostensibly brought four centres, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, Keith Earls and Darren Cave. But even though Payne was ruled out of the Italy, France and Argentina games, Earls deputised in all three at outside centre while Cave featured only against Canada. This could lead Schmidt and co into leaning toward three centres this time.
While there were four centres in the squad in 2016, for the Australian tour Schmidt brought only three centres, Bundee Aki, Henshaw and Ringrose.
Those three look sure to be named in the World Cup squad, while Chris Farrell has since entered the picture, and played at inside centre against Italy before wearing 13 today.
This would be particularly true if Will Addison is named as he could cover centre as well as fullback and wing. So today’s game looks like a massive opportunity for him, albeit Addison needs to put forward a compelling case after being sidelined since January.
It’s only his fourth cap, making him the least experienced member of the preliminary squad, but that would probably have been more but for injury and it’s also worth noting that no sooner had Addison agreed to join Ulster that he trained with the squad in Australia.
Earls, Rob Kearney and Jacob Stockdale look certain inclusions, and although Jordan Larmour hasn’t covered himself in glory in the last two warm-ups, he has been involved in 15 of Ireland’s last 18 matches. That would seemingly leave Farrell, Addison, Andrew Conway and Dave Kearney vying for two places between them.
That the quartet are all involved today against Wales, with the first three starting and the latter on the bench, also points to today’s game being something of a final audition.
If both Addison and Farrell perform strongly today, they could make the cut, which would make Conway one of the unluckiest to miss out.
Up front, Schmidt’s unusual appearance on the Tuesday of a Test week in addition to his Thursday and Saturday gigs – media days would not have him leaping out of bed shouting “yippee” was in large part to give his backing to Rory Best.
So Best will assuredly retain the captaincy and if Niall Scannell is part of a solid set-piece foundation today and adds in his customary workload he and Sean Cronin will probably edge out Rob Herring, who hasn’t featured since starting the Italian game.
Cronin, admittedly, has only featured off the bench once in the three warm-up games, and a couple of wayward darts in Twickenham won’t have enhanced his claims.
His impact off the bench as a ball-carrier gives him an X-factor which none of the other hookers possess, and as 59 of his 69 Tests have been as a replacement, no one knows the role better. But Herring is regarded as the better set-piece operator and this looks like a 50-50 call which, as neither is involved today, has perhaps been made.
On the premise that it was “a priority” to give Jean Kleyn starts against Italy and England, the permutation of the locks has been given added intrigue. The recently qualified South African-born Munster secondrow appears to be a genuine contender and thus could squeeze out Tadhg Beirne.
But, after twice covering both positions off the bench, if the former Leinster and Llanelli lock cum blindside underlines his versatility in the latter position this afternoon he provides more, not least in his ability over the ball.
As has always seemed likely, that would still leave Schmidt and co needing to pick five backrowers from seven, although Beirne’s inclusion would also give him the option of starting two different backrows.
In the decidedly unfortunate absence of Seán O’Brien and Dan Leavy, this would likely mean one specialist openside in Josh van der Flier, given Peter O’Mahony, as he does today, and Jordi Murphy, if included, can cover the position.
“Josh and CJ had very big workloads last week, and certainly Rhys and Tommy are both athletes who aren’t out of the picture,” said Schmidt on Thursday. “I think it is one of those places where when we sit down on Sunday afternoon, it’s going to be some of the toughest decisions that we have to make.”
Yet it seems entirely reasonable to presume that in addition to O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Jack Conan, van der Flier edges out Tommy O’Donnell, with the other place effectively resting between Murphy and Rhys Ruddock.
Ruddock’s physicality has invariably looked tailor-made for meetings with the Springboks, Ireland’s prospective World Cup quarter-final opponents. He was a try-scoring man of the match when a late call-up at 7 for the unwell Chris Henry against them in 2014 and has a 3-2 record against South Africa.
He also has a 7-0 record as an Irish captain (including both Tests in Japan) but hasn’t been seen since the last of those against Italy a fortnight ago. Being ruled out of today’s game with an unspecified “niggle” won’t have helped his chances. Injuries were also a contributing factor when Ruddock missed the original cut for the last World Cup and the Australian tour.
In both instances Murphy was chosen, and it could be that his durability and versatility across the backrow will again see him named.
But clearly much still hinges on all these players performing impressively today and emerging injury free, while it would also be a surprise if Schmidt didn’t have a surprise or two.
Ireland's possible World Cup squad
Outside backs: Keith Earls, Rob Kearney, Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, Will Addison.
Centres: Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, Chris Farrell.
Outhalves: Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty.
Scrumhalves: Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion.
Hookers: Rory Best (capt), Niall Scannell, Sean Cronin.
Props: Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, John Ryan, Andrew Porter.
Locks: James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Tadhg Beirne.
Backrow: Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Jordi Murphy.