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Strong squad underlines Ireland's chances of series success in Australia

Joe Schmidt’s 32-man squad features two uncapped players and a host of proven stars.

Updated at 21.33

THERE WILL ALWAYS be a few bones of contention but overall this Ireland squad selection from Joe Schmidt is difficult to argue with.

The strength of Schmidt’s 32-man group underlines the fact that Ireland have a fine chance of success against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies in next month’s three-Test series in Australia.

Joe Schmidt Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There were some calls for Ireland’s Lions contingent from last summer to be rested but the players themselves have consistently underlined that the IRFU’s player management programme means they feel in no need of sitting this tour out.

Keen to keep their Grand Slam momentum rolling, the likes of Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong will believe they can achieve another milestone on the path towards the 2019 World Cup.

The fact that the Japan-hosted tournament is now so close means it was unlikely that Schmidt would ever include a large number of new faces, but the involvement of Tadhg Beirne and Ross Byrne adds to the interest levels for this tour.

Beirne’s inclusion in the squad had been well flagged, as long ago as during the Six Nations, when there was some surprise that Schmidt hadn’t opted to include the Scarlets man in his extended squad.

The Munster-bound lock did visit Ireland camp during that window, however, and Schmidt now feels the time is right to integrate him fully.

Beirne is one of five locks but he is comfortable playing at blindside flanker too, while he has also lined out in the Scarlets’ number eight shirt on a handful of occasions this season.

Wherever the turnover machine’s debut comes, his intelligence, skill level and dogged work rate will be a welcome addition to the Ireland party.

Leinster out-half Byrne is the other uncapped player deservedly included in Schmidt’s touring party, following a season in which he has started 19 games and made a further seven appearances off the bench for Leinster.

Beyond the experience the 23-year-old has racked up, his performances have been consistently impressive. Byrne comes across as a laidback character and his composure has been important to Leinster many times, with Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster backing him in the 10 shirt ahead of Joey Carbery on a number of occasions.

Ross Byrne Byrne has been important to Leinster this season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It seems very likely that Carbery will remain the second-choice behind Johnny Sexton at out-half and a start on this tour would be brilliant for his development, but Byrne’s performances have earned him the right to tour.

Previous number three Ian Keatley lost his place as Munster’s 10 to JJ Hanrahan towards the end of the season and misses out.

In the propping spots, Schmidt has stuck with the reliables in Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter and John Ryan – the last of whom was superb against Leinster last weekend.

Munster’s loosehead pair of James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne would have had some hopes of a return to the international mix, but the choice to bring only five props means they both miss out, with Porter’s history at loosehead meaning he can cover there.

At hooker, captain Rory Best and the in-form Sean Cronin were also certain to be included, but there was some uncertainty over number three in this position.

James Tracy was excellent off the bench against Munster to make a late claim, while Niall Scannell has been in and out of the southern province’s team amidst the good form of Rhys Marshall and Scannell’s own struggle to reach the kind of form he showed last season.

But Schmidt has gone for Ulsterman Rob Herring, who has had an impressive season at provincial level and did well during last November’s Test window. Connacht man Shane Delahunt needs a full season as his province’s first-choice hooker to come into contention.

In the second row, the inclusion of Quinn Roux appears to have raised some eyebrows again, but he has performed well for Ireland in each of his five caps so far and offers a different skillset to the other locks in the group.

A hard-rucking, close-in carrying specialist, Roux’s scrummaging is highly-regarded by Schmidt and co., while his lineout skills are a little underappreciated too. Ultan Dillane and Kieran Treadwell offer more mobility, but their absence next month doesn’t mean they are completely out of the World Cup picture.

Quinn Roux and CJ Stander Schmidt has been a fan of Roux's skills for a long time. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Schmidt’s back row selection was particularly straightforward, especially with Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Jack O’Donoghue currently injured.

A quintet of Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander and Jack Conan is certainly exciting in an area where the Wallabies have two of their best players in David Pocock and Michael Hooper.

Luke McGrath pushed hard for inclusion in this squad, with a more consistent season for Leinster in which he was a key part of their Champions Cup success. In the end, though, Schmidt has opted for John Cooney and Kieran Marmion to back up Conor Murray.

Marmion has been an important member of the squad for some time and it’s worth remembering that he has bailed Ireland out on a number of occasions, memorably playing out of position on the wing against Australia in 2017.

He has had good outings at scrum-half too, notably against England in the 2017 Six Nations, while his form for Connacht has been strong.

Cooney was named player of the season in Ulster after a hugely positive first campaign after moving from Connacht.

The IRFU can justifiably feel a sense of satisfaction at Cooney’s form earning him a place in the national squad, having facilitated and encouraged his move north after their decision not to allow Ulster to re-contract Ruan Pienaar was met with outrage.

There are just three centres in Schmidt’s squad in Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, although Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour are both capable of covering the 13 slot if required.

Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose celebrate winning Schmidt has named three top-class centres. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ideally, the three recognised midfielders will suffice for this tour and it will be fascinating to see what Schmidt’s first-choice pairing is now that all three are fit at the same time. Aki and Henshaw, Henshaw and Ringrose, Aki and Ringrose – each combination has its appeal.

Munster pair Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold will be disappointed not to get further opportunities, although Schmidt might point out that 21-year-old Arnold has had good exposure in the camp already this season.

With Chris Farrell set to return from injury next season, Scannell’s opportunities for Ireland look like becoming even slimmer. It would be a shame if he never gets a chance to prove himself against Tier 1 opposition.

The back three is another department that largely picked itself, but it will be intriguing to note what role Larmour plays after winning his first three caps off the bench during the Six Nations.

All in all, there aren’t too many areas where people can argue with Schmidt’s 32-man selection and this squad looks more than capable of coming away from Australia with a series success.

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Murray Kinsella

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