One of the more interesting conundrums facing the Irish coaching staff is their choice of props for the World Cup. Four would be too little, and though some World Cup squads have had half a dozen, that is liable to be bulky and hence too restrictive, meaning five would be the optimum number.
This was the case for the 2015 World Cup and again for the three-Test summer tour to Australia last year, which also featured five props in a 31-man squad.
In both of those examples the balance was three-two in favour of specialist tightheads, although this can only be achieved if, at least notionally, one or more of them can pack down on both sides of the scrum.
Although John Ryan, Andrew Porter and Finlay Bealham would largely be operating from memory, all started out as looseheads before being converted to tighthead, and this should stand to one, and most probably, two of them.
This "flexibility" is something that scrum coach Greg Feek admitted yesterday has been discussed with Joe Schmidt and the other coaches.
“Over the years some of those guys have been able to cover both sides and it has actually played into their hands a bit for the World Cup.
“Obviously, at the last World Cup, we all know the story with Tadhg [Furlong]. We saw it as an opportunity for Tadhg at that stage, but this time I think we’ve got some guys that have actually got some runs on the board and for me it would probably be the guy that fits that best,” said Feek at the squad’s Carton House base.
That Ireland undoubtedly have a stronger hand to pick from is best illustrated by the example of Furlong alone. Such was Joe Schmidt's admiration for the Wexfordman's potential that he was prepared to invest in the future of the then 22-year-old, who was one of five props included along with Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross and Nathan White, despite him having only earned two caps off the bench in the warm-up games.
Four years on he's an experienced, world-class Test front-liner, with two from Ryan, Porter and Bealham as back-up, while Dave Kilcoyne and Jack McGrath vie to join Cian Healy as the specialist looseheads, which is another barometer of the improved strength in depth.
“Yeah, you’d like to think so,” said Feek when asked if their front-row stocks were better. “I think there’s experience there. A lot of the guys have had bloody noses. They’ve had some good days and they’ve had some bad days and that’s important for the World Cup as well.
“The bloody ones are the ones that you know you’ve got to get right in terms of your own role and the team’s role and they’ve banked a bit of that and now we’ve got to make sure we build ourselves. But this week we kind of have to be ready to go for their own sake as well,” said Feek with Saturday’s first warm-up game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium in mind.
Agreeing that pruning the squad to 31 will be tougher across the board than four years ago, Feek said that selection meetings have, accordingly, become more intense, although he quipped: “We’re not flipping tables or anything like that. But it’s good, robust conversation.
“There might be close calls and that’s the exciting thing for me, but my job, and Faz and Joe and all the other coaches, is to give the players the best opportunity as well, and hopefully that we get our messages right and processes and stuff as well. So we’re all looking at each other. Well, I know I am in terms of that.”
Feek will end a decade-long association with the Leinster and Irish scrums after the World Cup when relocating permanently to Japan where he is coaching NEC Rockets, a job he has been dovetailing along with his Irish role for the last two years.
Most of what the Irish squad can expect is already well known, he maintains. “There is the weather and the heat that is unpredictable. If you do end up going out there just be really positive about the food. You will find some good stuff. You might even lose weight,” he said to the assembled media.
“Yeah, it is going in there with an open mind first and foremost and if you can pick up some language when you are there. ‘Sugoizo!’ Awesome. A good word to know,” he revealed cheerily.
More pertinently, and as was to be expected, the hosts and Ireland's pool rivals have made strides – since the tour there two years ago – under the former All Blacks and Japan flanker Tony Brown and his assistant Jamie Joseph. They have been helped by a clutch of newly qualified players.
“Yeah, they have got a lot of guys who have come in through eligibility. They have been training during the whole Super Rugby, on and off, in an out, trialing different combinations,” said Feek in reference to the Sunwolves franchise which is to be axed after the 2020 Super rugby season.
“I don’t know if you have seen the footwork of some of the outside backs, and that’s Japan rugby. A lot of teams have footwork like that and it is really hard to defend at times.
“Their half-backs like to have a crack as well. They are quite quick off the ground with their pass. You can see their style of play is to have as many numbers on feet as you can, less numbers in rucks and speed of ball.
“Now they have brought in a few variants with their set-piece attack. The kicking game can be an issue over there with the humidity. Yeah, there is some exciting things for them.”