MOST WERE EXPECTING five props in Ireland’s final 31-man World Cup squad, but not quite in this shape.
Three specialists tightheads – the warhorse Mike Ross, skillful Nathan White and bolter Tadhg Furlong – and two looseheads – the soon-to-return Cian Healy and breakdown expert Jack McGrath.
It’s an intriguing selection, particularly given the fact that there were genuine concerns over Healy’s long-term health during the summer as he recovered from an operation on his neck.
The outlook right now is very promising for the 27-year-old, but it wasn’t always that rosy as Ireland’s medical team and the specialist surgeon attempted to provide Schmidt with some clarity.
Only in the last week has Healy been given the all clear to return to contact, which he did in Ireland’s training sessions at Carton House last week. The loosehead’s reaction to those physical tests were positive and he is now set to make his return to playing on Saturday against England at Twickenham.
There will of course still be some caution and trepidation with Healy, and the sense is that he is unlikely to start a game for Ireland until later in their Pool D campaign at the World Cup, potentially against Italy or France.
For now, Jack McGrath will continue to have his chance to impress in the number one shirt, while Healy looks to regain full fitness.
Last week at Carton House, Schmidt hinted that one of his younger tighthead props could potentially switch over to the loosehead side in case of emergency.
“Someone like a Marty Moore or Tadhg Furlong might be able to swap over,” said Schmidt in answering the question of whether versatility was needed in a five-prop selection.
There have been some suggestions of Nathan White possibly covering the loosehead side too, but Schmidt said last week that “I don’t think we’d ask it (flipping over) of some of the more mature guys.”
Indeed, the early word from camp is that New Ross man Furlong is the one who would provide cover for McGrath at loosehead in the case that Healy suffers a setback or needs more time away from match days, and therefore cannot be included on the bench.
A composed, intelligent and determined 22-year-old, one senses that Furlong would take such a challenge in his stride.
His rise into the World Cup squad has been impressive, particularly given that he has just just nine starts for Leinster under his belt. Furthermore, the thigh injury he sustained at the very start of pre-season this summer meant Furlong’s own optimism was somewhat dampened.
That said, anyone who watched him at the 2011 and 2012 Junior World Championships will have felt that this was always a possibility.
Ross will continue to be the primary choice at tighthead of course, while Schmidt has long been a believer in White’s ability, first bringing him to Ireland during his time as Leinster’s head coach.
The total of three international caps behind Ross might be a concern in other nations, but Furlong’s constant improvements and White’s extensive experience in Super Rugby and with Leinster and Connacht provide reassurance.
There are still question marks over Healy returning to his previous physical condition, as there are with any player coming back from neck surgery, but all the signs on the training pitch, in the gym and in the medical room are encouraging.
Like the call on bringing only two scrum-halves, there is scope for this to backfire on Ireland. However, we can rest assured that Schmidt and his backroom team have weighed up the pros and cons, every single possible outcome and made as calculated a gamble as they possibly could have.