Despite their ham-fisted attempt in defending their 2018 Grand Slam, Ireland’s World Cup depth chart offers up far more reasons for cheer than their scratchy 2019 form.
The upside to their third-place finish was that injury gave more players than usual game time in the championship and that could prove invaluable in preparations for the world finals in Japan.
Joe Schmidt likes planning with large numbers. Ireland’s addition this week of Will Addison to their squad means that of the half-dozen Six Nations countries, they are preparing for Japan with the largest panel at their disposal, 45 compared to Scotland and Italy’s 44, Wales’ 42, England’s 38 and France’s 37.
Trimming that down to the required 31 by early September will be intriguing in certain positions, none more so than half-back. In 2015, Schmidt travelled to the finals with three out-halves and two scrum-halves, a punt that didn’t pay off.
Ian Madigan couldn’t shoulder the burden of starting for the injured Johnny Sexton in the quarter-final loss to Argentina, while having just two nines meant Conor Murray had to tog out for all five matches without rest.
(Continue reading below…)
With a likely split of 17 forwards and 14 backs expected, the squeeze will be noticeable at half-back as Schmidt is currently looking at eight players and three weeks of collective training so far has only added to that conundrum.
“I’m thinking it’s wrecking my head. I’m really not sure,” he said on Friday following Ireland’s public training session in Galway. “We had a coaches meeting this morning and we were throwing combinations around and we certainly haven’t got the answer yet.
“During this pre-season players will get the opportunity to put their hands up. We have been really impressed with all four scrum-halves and all four our-halves. It’s going to be a tough conundrum and I can’t answer it as I don’t know.”
Ireland have already had an injury scare in this department, Sexton spraining a thumb when it crashed into Dave Kilcoyne’s heel in training last month. How John Cooney fares will be pivotal in the eventual selection outcome as he has the ability to cover both No9 and 10 positions.
In terms of a big name casualty, prop is the area to watch. Schmidt only took two looseheads to England 2015 and if a squad was picked now on form so far in 2019, it would see Kilcoyne ahead of 2017 Lions tourist Jack McGrath in the pecking order behind first choice Cian Healy.
Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell would expect to be ahead of Rob Herring in providing cover for skipper Rory Best at hooker, but John Ryan has a battle holding off Finlay Bealham for the third tighthead spot.
Second row has already witnessed a tough selection. Despite being Ireland’s second busiest lock last term, Quinn Roux wasn’t one of the half dozen chosen in a training squad that instead included his fellow South African Jean Kleyn who recently became Irish-eligible under residency.
Two players will lose out here, as likely will two of the seven back rows currently in training, a sector of the team that is missing the long-term injured Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy.
“There are groups that are impressing,” insisted Schmidt after week three’s collective training finished. “The whole back row are really pushing each other.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 28, 2019
“And the second rows as a group, Dev (Toner) is back in full training now so we have got all of them really competing against each other and we know the volume of work James Ryan gets through.
“Everyone is trying to demonstrate that they are up for the same sort of volume of work. Across the board, it’s going to throw up some very tough decisions.”
Four years ago, Schmidt brought nine centres, wingers and full-backs and he is now running the rule over 13 possibilities.
Dave Kearney, Rory Scannell, Addison, and the uncapped Mike Haley are the fringe players looking to make the cut by impressing if they get a chance in the August matches versus Italy, England or Wales.
By the time the Irish face the Welsh for a second time on September 7, the selection die will have been cast for Japan and the identity of the 14 not travelling will be known.
WATCH: Part one of the two-part RugbyPass documentary on the many adventures that fans experience in Japan at this year’s World Cup
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.