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Gerry Thornley: opportunity knocks for trio in Australia

Players have chance to impress Schmidt in three-Test tour ahead of 2019 World Cup

Scarlets’s Tadhg Beirne in action against Glasgow Warriors in the Pro14 semi-final. The 26-year-old has been called up to the Ireland squad for the tour to Australia. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The windows of opportunity between now and the 2019 World Cup in Japan in 16 months' time are shrinking, with just this summer's tour, November's four matches and the Six Nations to come before the World Cup warm-up matches.

Viewed in that light, the selections of Tadhg Beirne, John Cooney and Ross Byrne in the 32-man squad for the upcoming three-Test tour to Australia look the most significant.

It is a measure of Beirne's potential value come the World Cup that Joe Schmidt and his fellow coaches, whose deliberations continued from Tuesday into Wednesday and thus delayed the squad announcement for three hours until after 5pm, have included him at what is effectively the first available opportunity.

Although Munster-bound, the ex-Leinster player will be starting his 30th game of the season for the Scarlets in this Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 final against Leinster at the Aviva, and has already played more than 2,100 minutes this season – way more than any player operating in the Irish system.


Not surprisingly though, any temptation to rest him has been passed up. This is because the 26-year-old’s line-out skills, strength over the ball in winning turnovers, mobility and ability to play in the secondrow, “6” or “8”, could be invaluable, not least given World Cup squads are restricted to 31 players.

Enforced departure

Having had just a few days in Ireland’s Carton House camp at the start of the Six Nations, the sooner Beirne becomes au fait with Schmidt’s highly detailed and exacting ways the better, as from next season on his game time can be managed.

This being the last tour before the World Cup, perhaps similarly therefore, as a goal-kicking scrumhalf who can cover outhalf, Cooney could potentially also bring plenty to a 31-man squad in Japan 2019. The 28-year-old Leinster product was one of those to make his debut last summer, in the second Test in Japan, when he was still technically a Connacht player.

However, his move to Ulster has worked out well, and soothed some of the resentment up north over Ruan Pienaar's enforced departure. David Nucifora will also cite it as proof that switching allegiances can prove rewarding.

Continuing on that theme, as Joey Carbery mulls over a possible move to Munster, he and Johnny Sexton are joined in the squad by Byrne, who along with Beirne, are the only uncapped players in the squad. Byrne is picked in an Irish squad for the first time, effectively at the expense of Ian Keatley, heretofore the third choice "10".

The Leinster man has started 19 games at outhalf this season, including 80 minutes in both of the pool wins over Montpellier, as well as seven more off the bench, including the other four Euro pool games. That amounts to 1,560 minutes at outhalf.

By contrast, although he is Sexton’s established understudy, Carbery has suffered for the broken arm he sustained in his sole start at outhalf for Ireland this season against Fiji last November, as well his versatility. Hence, while there have been good cameos off the bench such as the Slam clincher in Twickenham, he has also started only one game at “10” for Leinster this season, the defeat at home to Benetton.

Carbery's only other start for Ireland was against the USA last June when, in the absence of Ireland's Lions, Schmidt and co brought eight uncapped players in the 31-man squad for a tour which also included a reconnaissance mission to Japan last summer. Of those, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter would become regulars through last season's Guinness Series and Grand Slam-winning campaign.

Notable absentees

Bundee Aki was the one newcomer of three to establish himself in the team in last November's Guinness Series, while Jordan Larmour was the only player to make his Test debut during the Six Nations. Now opportunity knocks for Beirne and Byrne, as well as Cooney, although how much game time the trio are given in Australia remains to be seen.

With the inclusion of Byrne, naturally Leinster are again bulk suppliers with 17 players, yet two or three of their players are among the most notable absentees. Cooney's selection means no place for Luke McGrath. While Kieran Marmion has been consistently ahead of McGrath in the pecking order, and has built up a body of work and with it trust, it's still a little surprising that a European Champions Cup-winning scrumhalf has missed out.

So too have James Tracy and Rhys Ruddock. Although Tracy has returned to fitness since being sidelined for much of January and February, to see out the last quarter of all Leinster's knock-out games, he remains behind Rob Herring in the hooker pecking order.

Last Saturday's semi-final against Munster was Ruddock's first start since December, since when he has been bedevilled by hamstring problems, and with Beirne and Iain Henderson providing additional backrow cover, so a fifth lock, Quinn Roux, is accommodated along with five, rather than six, loose forwards.

In an IRFU press release, Schmidt was quoted as saying: “At midday today [Wednesday] we made the final decisions which included a number of very tough calls and some players are incredibly unlucky to miss out on selection.”

Presumably McGrath, Ruddock and Tracy were among those to receive phone calls, and in the absence of the injured Chris Farrell, perhaps also the uncapped Munster centre Sammy Arnold after he too didn't make the cut, along with Rory Scannell and Stuart McCloskey, who had featured in squads this season. Only three specialist centres have been chosen, with Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour providing additional cover at outside centre.

The door is not closed, but it’s narrowing, and with the World Cup looming closer on the horizon, versatility counts.

Ireland squad

Forwards: R Best (Ulster, capt), T Beirne (Scarlets), J Conan, S Cronin, T Furlong, C Healy (all Leinster), I Henderson, R Herring (both Ulster), D Leavy, J McGrath J Murphy (all Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster), A Porter (Leinster), Q Roux (Connacht), James Ryan (Leinster), John Ryan, CJ Stander (both Munster), D Toner (Leinster).

Backs: B Aki (Connacht), R Byrne, J Carbery (both Leinster), A Conway (Munster), J Cooney (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), R Henshaw, R Kearney, J Larmour (all Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), C Murray (Munster), G Ringrose, J Sexton (both Leinster), J Stockdale (Ulster).

Ireland summer tour 2018 fixtures

Saturday 9th June, 2018

Australia v Ireland

Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, KO 20.05 local (11.05 IRL)

Saturday 16th June, 2018

Australia v Ireland

AAMI Park, Melbourne, KO 20.05 local (11.05 IRL)

Saturday 23rd June, 2018

Australia v Ireland

Allianz Park, Sydney KO 20.05 local (11.05 IRL)

The games will be broadcast live on Sky Sports (TV) and RTE 2FM (Radio).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times