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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 8 April, 2020

Ireland's fullback cover among the issues concerning O'Sullivan

The former Ireland head coach also says leaving Devin Toner at home puts huge pressure on James Ryan.

Kearney scored his first Test try in four years against Wales.
Kearney scored his first Test try in four years against Wales.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE LACK OF cover for Rob Kearney at fullback is one of three issues concerning former Ireland head coach Eddie O’Sullivan as the team depart for the World Cup in Japan.

Kearney, preparing to play in his third World Cup, looked fit and sharp during his two warm-up appearances, but an injury to the Leinster fullback in Japan would leave Ireland vulnerable, according to O’Sullivan.

Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway are the obvious choices to fill in in the backfield should Kearney be absent for whatever reason, while Joe Schmidt has also used Robbie Henshaw in the 15 jersey, even if that experiment didn’t exactly work against England.

There is also the possibility of Garry Ringrose covering the back three having being used on the wing in both of the recent games against Wales, but Kearney has again underlined his enduring worth in Ireland’s XV.

“We have one fullback,” O’Sullivan, who will be on the RTÉ panel during the World Cup, begins.

“Rob Kearney has hit the ground running again but he is very injury-prone and hopefully he can stay fit and healthy because if he doesn’t then there is no tied and tested 15. Everywhere else I would say he is happy.  

“The back row debate, [Josh] van der Flier was definitely there. Peter O’Mahony has to come in for the lineout if for no other reason. Then it is between Conan and Stander for number eight.

“I wouldn’t be that confident he won’t stay with Conan. Stander might have missed a beat. He made a good case last weekend but maybe he has made up his mind already to play Stander at six. They are the kind of things he is mulling over.”

The other questions in O’Sullivan’s head as Ireland enter the final stretch of preparation are over the second row options and Schmidt’s midfield combination.

Leaving Devin Toner at home, O’Sullivan says, has added a huge amount of pressure on the shoulders of James Ryan, while the selection of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw at 12 and 13 suggests Ireland will opt for power over guile in attack throughout the tournament.

rte-sport-rugby-world-cup-2019-launch O'Sullivan is part of RTÉ's Rugby World Cup coverage. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

O’Sullivan continues: “Not to dwell on the Devin Toner selection, but putting James Ryan into his first World Cup as the main lineout caller, which he potentially hasn’t had ever because he is learning his trade as a caller, the World Cup isn’t the best place to be doing it. So huge pressure on him.

“He settled at the weekend after getting the first couple of calls wrong, that’s going to be a test for Ryan but I think he is the next Paul O’Connell and hopefully that won’t detract from his game.

“Schmidt is also mulling the midfield. There is talk of Ringrose covering the backfield. That’s an unusual call because we have always seen him as the outside centre and then it was a case of Aki or Henshaw inside.

Now Henshaw looks like a potential outside centre so that would mean a different game plan. I think they are going more direct, more confrontational with Aki and Henshaw in the middle. I’m not sure if that’s the thinking but you could read that into it.

All things considered, O’Sullivan adds that he believes Ireland are in a good space heading into their first game against Scotland on Sunday week. 

“I think they are pretty much where Joe Schmidt would like them to be, despite the setback in Twickenham,” he says.

“I think they got the prep for Twickenham wrong in some shape or form, I don’t know exactly what it was, whether they went in undercooked or what training the previous weeks, but they certainly got it wrong. They certainly didn’t plan to be hit for 50 so it put them in a bit of a crisis mode for the last two weeks and the win in Cardiff and the win last week probably settled the nerves.”

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Ryan Bailey

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