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Ireland start making 'tough calls' as Dillane and Scannell cut

Joe Schmidt will take a closer look at his options against Italy this Saturday.

‘KONNICHIWA’, GREG FEEK says as he sits down at the top table of Carton House’s grand Drawing Room. The World Cup may be six weeks away, but as Ireland return to their Maynooth base, you get the sense that the serious business begins here. 

After weeks on the road in Galway, Limerick and, more recently, Abbotstown, Joe Schmidt’s extended squad are back on familiar territory as the focus narrows ahead of Saturday’s first warm-up outing against Italy. 

A view of training The Ireland squad training at Carton House. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It has been a relentless six-week block of fitness and strength and conditioning work, as the players have been pushed as hard as ever in anticipation of what is to come in Japan, but now the attention reverts back to rugby.

Conor O’Shea’s Italy provide the first opposition at the Aviva Stadium this weekend, in the first of four games in this pre-season block, ahead of the World Cup opener against Scotland on 22 September.

Now that the initial phase of preparations are over, Schmidt — who has returned to New Zealand this week due to a family bereavement — and his coaches will begin the process of whittling down the squad to 31 players, having made the first move by releasing Ultan Dillane and Rory Scannell back to their provinces at the weekend.

To cut two players ahead of the warm-up games is a particularly tough call to make but also serves as a reminder to the rest of the squad that Schmidt has no option but to be ruthless in his decision-making over the coming weeks.

With six second rows in camp, Connacht’s Dillane was deemed surplus to requirements ahead of the visit to Italy, leaving Schmidt with Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn, who could make his debut this weekend, fighting for those seats on the plane.

It appears Munster team-mates Beirne and Kleyn, who qualifies for Ireland this week under the three-year residency rule, are in a straight shootout. 

But it would also be fair for both Dillane and Scannell to feel hard done by having come through the tough slog of pre-season without even getting an opportunity on the pitch.

Will Addison is back in contention after linking up with the squad in Galway, Scannell, who won the last of his three caps back in 2017, fell further down the midfield pecking order.

“You’ve got to start making some calls, and not just for the team’s sake, but for their sake as well,” Greg Feek said at Carton House this afternoon.

Ultan Dillane Dillane has been released back to Connacht. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We had six locks with Ultan and a number of inside backs there as well. Unfortunately, Scans and Ultan had to go back [to their provinces]. They did really well.

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“With the forwards, Ultan was looking the best I’ve seen him in a while. But these are the tough calls we’ve to start making and that was really tough.

“It’s a difficult process but in terms of depth, when you’re making tough choices at lock now, that’s really positive.”

It leaves Schmidt with a squad of 43 to choose from for this weekend, with Feek adding that all players are available for selection against Italy, including Johnny Sexton who has recovered from a thumb injury.

With further games against England at Twickenham and Wales in Cardiff and Dublin to come, management will have an extended window to run the rule over a number of players and combinations before finalising their World Cup selection at the start of next month.

Either way, Schmidt’s team announcement — the first of the season, and expected to be experimental — this Thursday lunchtime will be fascinating, as 23 of the squad are given their chance against the Azzurri at the Aviva [KO 2pm, RTÉ 2].

“You try and forecast ahead early on,” Feek continued. “You see guys’ form and there are definitely some areas we’re still discussing and the next three or four games will definitely have an impact on that, for the players and for us.

“We’re just picking a team we feel is this best for this week. Some guys might get an opportunity to get their chance now, but it has no relevance of importance whether it’s now or the other three games coming up.”

- Originally published at 15.47

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Ryan Bailey

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