Joe Schmidt keeping cards close to chest as he looks to pare down squad
Ireland coach admits waters still unclear with backroom staff meeting every day
Keith Earls turns towards the camera during Ireland squad training at Carton House. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
So the guessing game begins. Who will make the cut for Ireland’s World Cup squad of 31 out of the current squad of 46? Great for pub conversations, but it’s almost like a variation on They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? In this case substitute ‘cull’ for shoot and ‘players’ for horses. Similarly, this process will be drawn out, and the culling will be very public, even if the 15 who ultimately miss out will first be informed in private by Joe Schmidt.
The head coach has admitted that about seven or eight will be released before the end of next week, reducing the squad to a more manageable 38 or 39. Even this is a moving landscape which is causing Schmidt and his fellow coaches grief.
Part of the difficulty for those of us on the outside is that the majority of training is being conducted behind the screens surrounding the all-weather pitch at the Carton House which is patrolled by security guards.
Asked how often the coaches meet, Schmidt said “daily” with a wry smile, but nor are they clinically operating off a spreadsheet, with marks out of 10 beside each player, each week.
“I wish it was as mathematical as that,” said Schmidt during the week. “In trying to manage those risks at the same time even if you start to get some clear ideas about who and when you might narrow the squad to, there’s always the fear that if we narrow the squad at the end of this week and went out and played and picked up two injuries, and you’re ringing guys to bring them back into the squad, it’s not ideal.
“As much as you’ll express to them the importance they’ll have, they’ll feel that their value is lessened slightly. It’s not ideal. So we’ll try to manage that as best as we can, and that’s why it’s not as clinical as we’d like it to be, and as mathematical as you defined.
“But we are meeting every day, and sometimes we’re more focused on who will be in the 31, and sometimes we’re focused on who might not be in the 38 or 39 that is involved next week or in the week leading up to the Wales match.”
That the participants are allowed to travel to this World Cup with 31 players as opposed to 30 affords the coaches a tad more elbow room, but not much. And if the composition of the 31 is changing, one ventures so too is the breakdown between forwards and backs.
“At this stage to be honest it would probably lean itself towards a 17/14 split and that is probably as candid as I can be,” was as much as Schmidt would reveal.
“How that is split is difficult. There are players like Iain Henderson who I thought had a super finish to the season playing six. We have got him at four at the weekend and you might see him in the loose trio as well because having players that can just give us a little bit more flexibility [is good] and there are other players, like in the back line, who are a little more versatile than others.
“It’s getting that balance. You want to have the best player but you want to have the coverage. I can tell you that each time we meet the squad is slightly different. As often as not we have probably muddied the waters rather than given ourselves clarity.
“But as I said earlier, while we try to make some decisions based on how guys are training, the litmus test is getting them out in a Test match arena and seeing how they match up. We’re hoping that we know a little bit more on Sunday and we’ll know a little bit more Sunday week and that then helps us make what we hope are pertinent decisions.”
Viewed in that light, the landscape will change based on the evidence of today’s game and the meeting with Scotland at the Aviva next Saturday, and to a degree the return clash with Wales two weeks subsequently. Within a day or two of that game, the 31-man squad will be finalised prior to the final warm-up game against England at Twickenham on September 5th.
Presuming there are three hookers (most likely Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss), there then remains the decision to name five or six props. The picture here is muddied by Cian Healy’s recuperation from a neck injury. Presuming he is pronounced fit for even the first or second pool games against Canada and Romania, he is likely to be joined by Jack McGrath, Mike Ross and, most probably, Martin Moore.
Tadhg Furlong is pushing hard but Healy’s well-being, as well as McGrath’s ability to cover tighthead, probably tilts the coaches toward another loosehead, namely Dave Kilcoyne. Michael Bent’s versatility gives him an outside chance.
With Henderson offering cover at lock, this obviates the need for four locks, meaning either Donnacha Ryan or Dan Tuohy are likely to travel with Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner. That in turn leaves scope for five more back-rowers, where the attrition rate is often high.
In addition to Jamie Heaslip, Seán O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy’s versatility advances his claims, with Chris Henry heretofore more a part of the Irish fabric under Schmidt than Tommy O’Donnell.
Isaac Boss looks to be fractionally ahead of Kieran Marmion to accompany Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan, but thereafter things become particularly complicated. Ian Madigan’s versatility looks an invaluable commodity, the question being whether they bring Paddy Jackson as well.
If not, that would intensify the need for another 12 in addition to Robbie Henshaw, or else the only cover at 10 and 12 would be Madigan. That would presumably mean one from Gordon D’Arcy, Darren Cave and Noel Reid.
But if they went with Jackson and one of that trio, it would leave the coaches having to pick seven out of the remaining 12 backs, to cover six match-day positions. Even if the management only opted for one of that trio or Jackson, that still leaves a dozen players vying for the remaining eight places.
Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne and Rob Kearney look like shoo-ins, but thereafter there are few certainties.
If they provide confirmation of their well-being, the versatility of Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls should clinch their spots. Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble look best placed of the remaining wingers, with Felix Jones seemingly leading the posse of fullbacks cum wingers who can thus also provide cover for Rob Kearney.
But it will be interesting to see how much game time Simon Zebo and Dave Kearney are afforded over the next two games. The situation remains ‘fluid’, and those games will tell us much.