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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 15 September, 2019
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T Minus 400 to the Rugby World Cup, time to look at the likely squad

Put on the kettle, roll out the biscuits and help us pick the 17 forwards Joe Schmidt should take to the World Cup.

Reproduced with permission from Whiff Of Cordite

Following the November series / Autumn internationals / over-marketed “Irish” drink owned by London-based multinational series, Ireland now have the following games left on their pre-RWC schedule:

  • 5 Six Nations games (Italy, France, England, Wales, Scotland)
  • The Barbarians in May
  • four World Cup warm-ups (Wales x 2, Scotland, England)

Ignoring the money-spinner in Thomond, and taking the reasonable case that Joe Schmidt will have his RWC15 squad close to finalised before the warm-ups, that gives Ireland’s players 400 minutes to cement their place in the squad .. or not, in some cases.

The Ireland team at training Source: James Crombie/INPHO

We can’t, of course, ignore that possibility that someone will play themselves out of the squad in August, as did the unfortunate Tomas O’Leary four years ago, but then again it’s unlikely Joe Schmidt will persist for someone so badly out of form for so long that it becomes feasible.

What is more likely, given the attrition rate in general, and even for the well-managed Irish players in recent years – only Jamie Heaslip of the notional first XV has avoided injury in Schmidt’s time – is that certain players will need to prove their fitness in the warm-ups. But that’s an unknown. For now, anyway. And the warm-ups themselves might result in injuries – Wally, and then Fla (in training) were casualties in 2011.

31-strong

It seems a good time to review what the composition of that squad might look like – and there is very little scope for experimentation left, so it’s unlikely we’ll see many changes from here (injuries, as ever, excepted)

This time out, the RWC squad will be 31, with the extra player presumably designed to be a tighthead prop – 23 man matchday squads in international rugby are an innovation from this cycle. In the three previous World Cups, Ireland have gone for splits of 17-13 (2003) and 16-14 (2007 & 2011). A working assumption of a split of 17-14 seems like a good starting point. Based on previous picks, we can expect the following:

  • 3 hookers
  • 5 props (1 more than in 2007 and 2011)
  • 4 second rows
  • 5 backrows (note: do not need all to be specialist blindsides)
  • 3 scrum-halves
  • 2 out-halves
  • 3 centres
  • 4 wingers
  • 2 fullbacks

While some Irish players, particularly in the backline, are multi-functional in nature, they are not necessarily viewed as Swiss army knives by the coach. For example, while Mad-dog might provide bench cover in several positions, most indications from Schmidt are that he is seen primarily as an out-half.

Equally, Ferg has played centre for Ireland (most recently in Argentina) and provided bench cover for centre during the Six Nations, but was used exclusively as a wing in Schmidt’s final season at Leinster, and started his 8 tests prior to Tucuman on the wing. It feels unlikely that he’ll fall into the centre bucket, but is really a wing who can cover centre if necessary.

Let’s have a look:

Hooker: Besty and Sean Cronin are miles ahead of the pack and are on the plane – Besty is a key lieutenant on the team, valued for his work in the scrum and at rucks; and Cronin is a very different player, an excellent carrier who offers dynamism, if not quite the same technical attributes as Best.

Both players are prone to the yips – there was genuine surprise when Cronin, the hooker, was able to … er … hook effectively against the Boks; and Besty’s radar has the habit of going down for games at a time – even resulting in his omission from the original 2013 Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions squad. After that, Risteard O’Strais is next in line, and had a good November series coming back from injury. Damien Varley stepped in for Jirry in 2011, and he’s the most Best-like replacement – questionable throwing, good scrummager and brilliant breakdown merchant. He’s injured right now, but could be in the mix.

With Mike Sherry’s perma-injury problems showing no sign of abating, Rob Herring, who did well in Argentina, has some credit in the bank but has been a marginal figure at Ulster this season. One bolter is Duncan Casey, whose line-out stats this year are exceptional.  He didn’t even make November’s training squad – but it’s early days for him and Ireland’s lineout wasn’t any great shakes this series, so his throwing could make him a valuable option.  If he keeps on playing like he is, he could come into the reckoning.  But currently, all signs point towards Best, Cronin and Strauss.

On the plane: Besty, Cronin. Most likely for final seat: Strauss Also in the picture: Varley, Casey, Herring, Sherry

Prop

The flogging of Mike Ross continues unabated – he’s started every game under Joe Schmidt, and his importance of the team is illustrated by the 80 minutes he played against the Wobblies. However, it’s worth noting that the next two best tightheads were injured, and by all accounts the plan was to reduce his workload until injury stepped in.

Rodney Ah You with Professor Rhona Mahony Source: Steve Langan/INPHO

Rodney Ah Here was his backup both in Argentina and this November but, if fit, Marty Moore should be the number two to Ross. Of the other options, Nathan White had been pencilled in for Ah Here’s role until he got crocked, Deccie Fitz might be the best scrummager in Ireland (bar none) but struggles for 20 minute shifts these days, and Stephen Archer is behind Ah Here, which isn’t saying much.

On the other side, DJ Church and Jack McGrath are on the plane.  It could be Schmidt picks two specialist tightheads and uses McGrath as the filler-inner in case of tighthead emergencies. Dave Kilcoyne had a good series and has probably put some clear blue water between himself and James Cronin at international level – even if Cronin out-wrestles him by the end of the year, Schmidt will put some value on his being involved in the camp up to this point.

On the plane: Ross, Moore, Healy, McGrath Most likely for final seat: Killer Also in the picture: Cronin, White, Ah Here, Archer, Fitzpatrick


Second Row

The incumbents are the mighty, manic Paul O’Connell and the ever-improving Devin Toner – this pair are on the plane. Next up, its Iain Henderson, the new Willie John McBride. Henderson is laid up having taken elective surgery to be in prime nick for the RWC – taking one of Ulster’s best players out for 4 ERC games, when the backups are average, shows his importance to Ireland.

We expect Henderson to slot straight into the Six Nations 23, and perhaps even start a game – Henderson still likely has bulking out to do, but, of Irish locks of the same height (198cm) he is already 6kg heavier than Dave Foley (4 years older), 1kg heavier than Dan Tuohy (7 years older) and 2kg heavier than O’Connell (13 years older). And all that while being the best ball carrier in the unit, and a skillful and influential player already. The kid is a phenomenon.

 

Devin Toner and Dave Foley applaud the crowed Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

The last place is a shootout between that aforementioned Foley and Tuohy, the possibly sometime returning Donnacha Ryan and the slowly sagging Mike McCarthy. If Ryan comes back from injury the player he was three years ago, he’s red hot favourite.

McCarthy has been slowly regressing since that performance against the ‘Boks two years ago, and appears unlikely to reverse that career graph. Dan Tuohy was unfortunate (in our view) to miss out on the RWC11 squad, and offers something that the others don’t – good hands and a handy eye for the try-line. However, Foley feels like he is a nose ahead right now – if he keeps up this season’s form, he is favourite. You would have a slight qualm about dropping him in against the big second rows Italy and France like to field – Will Skelton treated him like a speedbump on Saturday – but he’s 4th choice, hopefully that won’t be necessary.

On the plane: O’Connell, Toner, Henderson Most likely for final seat: Foley or Tuohy. Also in the picture: Ryan, McCarthy

The Back Row

At one point, we seemed like we might have a mighty fight over the last slot in this unit, but if we bring five players, it looks like we know who they are. Rhys Ruddock was our best player in the Argentina tour, and stepped into the stricken Chris Henry’s shoes with aplomb, putting in two excellent displays against two very tough (and different) opponents. He appears to have put himself in an excellent position to be on the plane.

Rhys Ruddock and Chris Henry Chris Henry drives in to Rhys Ruddock in Argentina. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And speaking of Henry, if he comes back from a frightening brain injury, he’s likely to travel as well – Henry is one of the very few players that Joe Schmidt has specifically tailored a gameplan for (the 2012 HEC final) and was a huge influence in the Six Nations. But little can be taken for granted with such a serious condition; Les Kiss thinks it’s a matter of when, not if, he comes back so fingers crossed.

Moving on to more clear-cut matters: Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony are in. Which leaves one of the few world class players in our ranks – Sean O’Brien. If fit, he is most certainly not only going, but playing. But he’ll have been out for so long, he will have to show that he’s capable of being the same player as previously.

Sean O'Brien Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

 

So assuming the best for our two injured men, that’s the five – simples. Now, this is a very tough and attritional position, so, to be frank, we’d be pleasantly surprised if we get to September with all five ready to play. So hope remains for the rest.

Of those, Jordi Murphy, backup during the Six Nations, is probable first reserve. Another in contention would be Tommy O’Donnell, who looks close to his form of 2013, although not making it off the bench against Oz didn’t speak volumes to the coach’s confidence in him. Robbie Diack has had a steady start to his international career, albeit an unspectacular one – to be frank, it’s difficult to see us winning the tournament if we are this far down the depth chart – Dom Ryan and Robin Copeland, a genuine number 8, saw gametime in November too, and got some good reviews, but both are likely to be thinking about provincial starts before the World Cup is in their mind.

On the plane: Heaslip, O’Mahony, Ruddock Fitness permitting: O’Brien, Henry Also in the picture: Murphy, O’Donnell, Diack, Ryan, Copeland

So that’s the forwards, and, of the 17 slots up for grabs, we reckon 14 are pretty much decided, injuries allowing. That’s a pretty good and stable base to be building from. Our eyes and brains are getting tired now, so we’ll be back tomorrow with the backs.

First published at 19.32

Read this and much more on WhiffofCordite.com and follow them on Twitter @WhiffOfCordite

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