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Performances over next month will count for little come South Africa

Joe Schmidt already knows the players he wants fit for Ireland’s potential quarter-final.

Jack Carty and Chris Farrell will be hoping to impress Joe Schmidt.
Jack Carty and Chris Farrell will be hoping to impress Joe Schmidt.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

SQUAD ROTATION IS part and parcel of any World Cup campaign, but when a pool stage maps out as kindly as Ireland’s appears to have in Japan, then players shouldn’t find opportunities to lace up their boots too hard to come by.

Having won the all-important opening game against Scotland, Ireland are expected to encounter few problems across their remaining Pool A fixtures against Japan, Russia and Samoa.

That presents Joe Schmidt, the Ireland head coach, with an ideal opportunity to keep his most important frontline players in prime condition for the anticipated quarter-final meeting with South Africa on 20 October.

It also allows him to dip a little further into his squad than tournament rugby usual permits.

Even if Johnny Sexton hadn’t suffered a quad injury against Scotland, it is possible that Schmidt would not have risked him from the start against Japan, and his game time against both Russia and Samoa would also likely to be extremely limited.

With Joey Carbery only having recently returned to full training following the ankle injury he sustained in the opening World Cup warm-up fixture against Italy, it leaves Jack Carty facing the possibility of some very significant involvement over the coming weeks.

It is a scenario that would be highly unlikely at any other stage of the international calendar. 

The Connacht out-half has eight caps to his name, making his Ireland debut against Italy in Rome last February. In that time he has started just one game for Ireland, the warm-up game against Wales in Cardiff, despite a superb season with Connacht.

Otherwise, the most time he has been handed off the bench was the 31 minutes he played in the opening warm-up game against Italy, and his introduction that day come earlier than planned due to Carbery’s injury.

In three appearances off the bench during the Six Nations, he managed a total of 34 minutes. He will comfortably better that across this World Cup. Sunday’s defeat of Scotland sees him already on 23 minutes in the tournament.

It suggests an uncomfortable truth that while the World Cup remains the pinnacle for professional rugby players, the caps are perhaps easier won then during the rest of the season.

When else could Schmidt afford to rest key players for three competitive games in a row?

Carty is by no means on his own in this situation.

Chris Farrell has been a huge addition to the Ireland squad since returning from Grenoble in 2017, and would have much more than the eight caps to his name if not for two serious knee injuries.

Yet even when at his powerful best the Munster centre has found himself struggling for first-team action in arguably the most competitive area of Schmidt’s team.


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joe-schmidt-ahead-of-the-game Ireland head coach Schmidt. Source: Craig Mercer/INPHO

Farrell is one of four centres in Japan, alongside Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. All four have rarely been fit at the same time, and like Carty, Farrell has generally spent more time in his tracksuit than his jersey.

His first two caps came via starts against Fiji and Argentina in the 2017 November internationals, but he was pushed back down the pecking order when the following year’s Six Nations started.

Injury to Henshaw opened the door for Farrell to come in from the start against Wales that campaign, and despite a superb performance on his Six Nations debut, it would prove to be his only involvement as a ruptured ACL left him facing an extended period on the sideline.

He wouldn’t be capped until the following year, starting against Scotland in the Six Nations after coming in for the injured Ringrose. Farrell remained in the jersey against Italy, before further starts against Italy and Wales in the World Cup warm-up games.

Yet when the Scotland game arrived on Sunday he was again overlooked for a fit Ringrose. That disappointment was eased when an early injury to Aki allowed Farrell step in for an excellent 60-minute shift.

That in itself leaves Farrell in an unusual situation. While Aki has been cleared to play against Japan on Saturday it would be no surprise to see Schmidt rest the Connacht player. With Henshaw also yet to return, it could see Farrell play an extended role across Ireland’s remaining Pool A fixtures, leaving him in danger of putting in huge minutes as Aki and Henshaw are saved for the Springboks.

This is not to say that players like Carty and Farrell are not deserving of their place in the squad — far from it — but the reality is that given the quality of the opposition, Ireland’s next three games will count for little in Schmidt’s eyes. He already knows the players he wants fit for a potential quarter-final.

Performances against Russia and Samoa will not see a regular bench player usurp a fit first-team regular, in the same way that individuals who shine against Italy in the Six Nations or Fiji in November are often deemed surplus to requirements against more esteemed opposition the following week.

Players such as Tadhg Beirne, Luke McGrath, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Rhys Ruddock and Andrew Porter all sit in the same category. All could feature heavily over the next three games, but it would be a major shock if any of them found a way into the starting team for the quarter-final for any reason other than injury.

Not unlike the midweek teams on a Lions tour, the remaining Pool A games, particularly those against Russia and Samoa, are about getting back-up players up to speed and keeping the key men out of harm’s way. 

Despite being a month away, all eyes are already on that quarter-final. Every member of Schmidt’s squad would happily sit out the next three games if it meant starting that one.

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