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Expect just two scrum-halves to make Joe Schmidt's final Ireland 31 for RWC

That’s now five down, nine more to go as Joe Schmidt edges towards the magic number of 31 players he can take with him to the World Cup in Japan. 

Wednesday’s update before Ireland flew out to Portugal for their week-long warm-weather camp in Portugal was a sharp reminder of how ruthless a business Test rugby is. 

There was Mike Haley, for instance, as proud as punch only last Saturday after making his international debut. Just four days later, the pep had been brutally robbed from his step with Schmidt confirming the Munster full-back was now surplus to requirement along with John Cooney and Finlay Bealham.

Failing to make the cut after appearing in the opening warm-up match is nothing new on the Irish scene. In 2015, eight of the 23 Schmidt rolled out for the pre-season opener away to Wales never made it to England 2015. 

Felix Jones, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden and the cruelly injured Tommy O’Donnell has been starters in that 35-21 win in Cardiff but were nowhere to be seen when the World Cup finals came around.

Ireland depth chart

Ireland’s updated RWC training squad depth chart

Similarly, a quartet of first-day subs from four years ago – Dave Kilcoyne, Michael Bent, Dan Tuohy and Kieran Marmion – were all given the elbow when the registration deadline day came to pass.

Given that high attrition rate, you can be sure that other players who featured in last weekend’s scratchy win over Italy will still be the recipients of some very bad news regarding the eventual squad for Japan.

Having already last week cut loose second row Ultan Dillane and midfielder Rory Scannell, Schmidt’s latest cull at prop, scrum-half and back three will now sharpen the contest to get into the 31.

Cooney’s removal strongly indicates that Schmidt is again leaning towards bringing just two scrum-halves with him, as was the case in 2015. 

That was a gamble which resulted in Conor Murray having to strip as a sub for the gimme pool match versus Romania. The star No9 could yet wind up having to fill a similar role in the expected easy ride versus Russia in Kobe now that it is likely that only one of Kieran Marmion or Luke McGrath – not both – will travel to Japan as the health of Joey Carbery will require a third out-half, probably Jack Carty, to be selected.

Carbery’s situation is most important as if Ireland only travel with two specialist No9s, the Munster man would be the player expected to fill in if an emergency arose. This was the same back-up situation that Ian Madigan was placed in at the 2015 finals.

At front row, Kilcoyne, having lost out disappointingly in the 2015 shake-up, will be the player whose nerves have giddied following last weekend’s opener. The Munster loosehead had jumped ahead of 2017 Lion Jack McGrath during the recent Six Nations as the back-up to first-choice Cian Healy.

But McGrath was back in vogue as a starter for the fixture against the Italians and even worse for Kilcoyne, tighthead Andrew Porter, who is behind Tadhg Furlong but ahead of John Ryan in the No3 pecking order, had the second half on Saturday to acquaint himself with the demands of Test level loosehead propping.

That has generated speculation that Porter could now additionally provide No1 cover behind Healy and McGrath at Kilcoyne’s expense rather than Schmidt committing to bringing three looseheads to the World Cup. 

Last time, the coach favoured two looseheads (Healy and McGrath) and three tightheads (Mike Ross, Nathan White and Furlong, who was pencilled in for loosehead duty in an emergency). No wonder Kilcoyne will be feeling edgy.

As it stands, Ireland will play two further warm-up matches – away to England and Wales – before the RWC die is eventually cast prior to their fourth and final early September run-out in Dublin against the Welsh.

Nine more names need to join the five already excluded so far. Little by little, Schmidt is getting there.  

WATCH: Joe Schmidt’s media conference after last weekend’s win by Ireland over Italy

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Expect just two scrum-halves to make Joe Schmidt's final Ireland 31 for RWC