There was a world of difference between the display against Scotland that Ireland put in versus how alert and gelled they seemed against Wales, nobody will dispute that. Yet much like their win against France in this year’s Six Nations it was down and dirty but got the job done. We’re also nearly into double figures for tries scored, quite the opposite of all the Six Nations bemoaning. All in all, things still look well oiled and promising.
Joe Schmidt has resisted the urge to cull the squad still, likely waiting until the August 31st deadline, and who can blame him. As it stands, for the next two weeks everyone still has a jersey to play for. Thankfully though, I’m not Joe Schmidt so who stands where within the training squad?
In the pack, starting with loosehead, there is a substantial elephant in the room in the shape of Cian Healy. Were it any other player we would not be having this debate but the truth is, Healy is of a level that he could safely travel with the squad having played no part in the warm up fixtures and still be instrumental to the cause. Schmidt knows this and his is likely the first name for the plane. Dave Kilcoyne too has surely got enough of a shift in between his bench appearance last week and a solid display in the scrum and the loose against Scotland. Jack McGrath is a no brainer. For once, the tighthead situation in Ireland is a little more straightforward with Mike Ross a permanent fixture in Schmidt’s starting teams. Michael Bent is having absolute faith placed in him to fulfill his “ambi-propsterous” qualities and so it comes down to the third, between Marty Moore, Tadgh Furlong or Nathan White. Both of the latter are crucially missing game time at test level which could be the deciding factor but there could be another variable – only two props travelling.
The reason I would initially assume Schmidt is taking three of each position in the front row is injury, Healy and Marty Moore being a risk therefore entire match day 23 alternatives are needed to be present. However, he has announced that there will be a 17/14 split between forwards and backs respectively and with three hookers, three second rows and six back rows almost certain to make up the other sections, five props seems likely. Healy, it appears, is worse off than Moore and so if it were down to the wire it’s loosehead that wins the draw for who gets the extras. In the event of that being the case who misses out, Bent or Moore? It’s anyone’s guess.
Second row picks itself really, Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner and Donncha Ryan. It could look very different if Dave Foley had not been struck down with injury earlier in the year and Dan Tuohy is unfortunate not to have been able to prove himself a little more but the above trio are simply nailed on, Ryan making his case solely based on a proven track record and solid leadership should O’Connell be found absent at any point. In the back row it will be nearly as straightforward and no less cruel as Peter O’Mahony, Ian Henderson, Chris Henry, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Jordi Murphy all slot into place. Next to the back line it is the second most cruel of the culls. We would all love to see Jack Conan make it as a bolter but Schmidt has shown a leaning towards Murphy in the past and Dominic Ryan has just slipped too far into the background. Not forgetting the hookers, Rory Best, Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin, not likely to be any argument there.
In the backs life gets a lot more interesting (complicated). Two or three half backs, that is the question. I’ll assume three scrum halves and two out halves, leaving nine places across centre, wings and fullback. Conor Murray, injury be damned, travels regardless. Eoin Reddan has put the biggest argument in hot on the former’s heels, especially against Scotland where his pace was instrumental for the win. Then we have a choice of two. Isaac Boss would normally get my vote based on vintage and reliability but with no real bolters thus far, and a lacklustre show from Boss on Saturday, my money is on Kieran Marmion. The Connacht speedster may not get near a mine jersey but at 21 he could cause some serious damage on the minnows at least as fatigue sets in.
Ah the out halves. Jonathan Sexton of course travels, but is it Leinster or Ulster that provides the backup. Simply for versatility, and because I think Schmidt will sacrifice some of that versatility in the back three, Ian Madigan will travel at the expense of Paddy Jackson. Few will deny that Jackson has solidified his game massively since his first turn in green but an out and out 10 is not what Schmidt will want. This is because of the back three as I eluded to above because here is where the selections may run slightly against the grain. Three scrum halves, two out halves. Five down, nine places left. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne – the Six Nations winning partnership – are cemented. Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney are in on form and merit. Then comes the drawing of the three. Fergus McFadden has always been in good standing with Schmidt and can serve in a utility sense but here is where the curve ball comes. Felix Jones was more than solid against Wales and Rob Kearney has an injury record to be aware of. That leaves us down to two and here’s where it gets harsh. Darren Cave did little wrong in his stint against Wales and has permanently been knocking on the door, but Madigan provides the required centre cover.
So who are the chosen two? Craig Gilroy may get a run before the 31st but it would be a stretch. Certainly the spots go to Luke Fitzgerald and Simon Zebo, the latter’s assured aerial display against Scotland above all else will certainly help his case whilst the former could still be a 50/50 call between himself and Dave Kearney. There are a lot of disappointed faces to be found amongst the squad no matter how the cut goes, but the particular pattern painted above sees some surprise omissions. Players like Cave, Conan, Gilroy and Tuohy find themselves victims of Schmidt’s short tenure, another year or two and they could have been brought to a more substantial level. Still we can’t ignore the spoils of Irish rugby at the minute, the player names alone can be next to impossible to keep track of as Schmidt gleefully chops and changes from game to game. Is it too early to just kick off the hype train in full or do we have to wait?
The I’m Talkin’ Here Irish World Cup squad
LH Props Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Dave Kilcoyne
Hookers Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss
TH Props Mike Ross, Michael Bent
Locks Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Donncha Ryan
Back Rows Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Jordi Murphy, Ian Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry
Scrum Halves Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Kieran Marmion
Out Halves Jonathan Sexton, Ian Madigan
Centres Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, Keith Earls
Wings Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald
Full Backs Rob Kearney, Felix Jones