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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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Kleyn offers 'a different element' as Ireland squad competition heats up

Ireland have a number of selection dilemmas to resolve in the coming weeks.

NOT EVEN A single minute on the pitch in the warm-up games and already Ultan Dillane and Rory Scannell are on the outside looking in.

The Connacht lock and Munster centre completed six gruelling weeks of pre-season with Ireland but the brutal nature of World Cup squad selection was underlined as Joe Schmidt opted to release them back to their provinces this week.

Saturday’s first friendly game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium could well be the end of the road for others in Schmidt’s current 43-man squad as the Ireland boss and his coaches move towards deciding on their eventual 31-player group to travel to Japan.

Peter O’Mahony, Jacob Stockdale, Luke McGrath and Tommy O’Donnell Ireland at training in Carton House yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Injuries are likely to have a say over the coming weeks but there will still be difficult decisions all over the pitch for Ireland.

Take the propping spots for starters.

Cian Healy is nailed-on at loosehead, while Tadhg Furlong is the obvious starter at tighthead. Beyond that, you have Jack McGrath, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Andrew Porter and Finlay Bealham competing for what will likely be three other slots.

The feeling at present is that Ireland will bring two looseheads and three tightheads – one of whom would also cover the loosehead side. That would favour Andrew Porter, formerly a loosehead, but it will be interesting to see if Ireland experiment in this regard during their four warm-up games.

“There’s definitely some aspects of that [experimentation] I’ve been looking at, talking to Joe and the rest of the coaches about and it’s probably why there is that flexibility,” says Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek.

“Over the years, some of those guys have been able to cover both sides and it has actually played into their hands a bit for the World Cup.

“Obviously, at the last World Cup we all know the story with Tadhg and we saw it as an opportunity for Tadhg at that stage but this time I think we’ve got some guys that have actually got some runs on the board and for me it would probably be the guy that fits that best.”

Dave Kearney and Andrew Porter Andrew Porter could provide cover on the loosehead side. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

At hooker, captain Rory Best is the main man but there is competition between Niall Scannell, Sean Cronin and Rob Herring for the other two slots in the 31-man squad.

There is balance to consider in the back row with the likes of Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock and Tommy O’Donnell fighting it out, while Schmidt’s halfback selections will be intriguing too.

The second row is another area of real interest, even after Dillane was released. James Ryan, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson seem certainties but the race for the fourth locking slot is firmly on between Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn, who could make his Ireland debut on Saturday – two days after qualifying on residency grounds.

Beirne is a firm favourite in many supporters’ eyes, but the merits of an enforcer-style set-piece specialist like Kleyn should not be underestimated. 

“Jean brings a little bit of a different element to it,” says Feek. “He’s a big man, he’s played for Munster on the tighthead side of the scrum and enjoys the physical side of the game.

“Like anyone who comes in new, it’s making sure he understands the way we play the game, the intensity of it and getting his detail right which is obviously one part of it. Not forgetting the strengths he brings and making sure that that comes first at the same time.” 

All in all, Ireland are having some well-debated selection meetings already.

“It’s intense,” says Feek. “We’re not flipping tables or anything like that but it’s good robust conversation and sometimes it’s a little bit of, ‘Well, we have to wait and see.’

Jean Kleyn Jean Kleyn is a real contender for Ireland's 31-man squad. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Hooker, lock, these guys have to front up in the next [warm-up games] to see where they’re at. There might be close calls and that’s the exciting thing for me. My job and all the other coaches’ jobs are to give the players the best opportunity.”

Feek says the selection process this time around is definitely tougher than it was four years ago and stresses how positive it is to have experienced players vying for places.

“A lot of the guys have had bloody noses. They’ve had some good days and they’ve had some bad days and that’s important for the World Cup as well.”

While there are nervous and stressful times ahead for many players as they look to secure their places in the final Ireland squad partly with strong performances in the warm-up games, the rest of us can enjoy debating and deliberating.

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Murray Kinsella

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