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Who should start for Ireland at the Rugby World Cup?

Sure, it’s nine months away, but no harm having a plan in place.

THERE’S A LOT of rugby to be played between now and 22 September. A lot of form to hit dips and peaks, tonnes of players to be tackled, heaps of rucks to be hit, more injuries than we’d like to imagine and an innumerable crucial little details to get right in the final days of the Joe Schmidt era.

Ryan Wilson and Rob Kearney Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Still, no harm in us having a wee peak at what way Ireland could/should line up when the World Cup campaign kicks off against Scotland.

Sean Farrell

I haven’t necessarily picked the strongest team, but a team to meet Scotland. That means I’ve favoured mobility and dynamism when trying to tip the balance of one player over another. It could be a different story for a possible quarter-final meeting with South Africa or New Zealand.

So with that in mind, I think opening night at the World Cup will be an ideal stage for Tadhg Beirne to flex his muscles in green and, first game up, I would lean towards Sean Cronin and save a 37-year-old Rory Best for later tests in the tournament.

Most of the team picks itself, with major competition for the midfield and openside slots.

Bundee Aki with Blair Kinghorn Bundee Aki up against Blair Kinghorn in the 2018 Six Nations. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

For this clash, the handling and line-breaking ability of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell would be a tall order for Scotland to deal with in midfield defence.

In the seven shirt then, I’m just a Tullow Tank loyalist. Through good times and bad for Ireland, Sean O’Brien has continually been among our world class performers, a gamechanger of the highest order. 

15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls
13. Chris Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Jonathan Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Tadhg Beirne
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Sean O’Brien
8. CJ Stander

Murray Kinsella

The unfortunate reality of professional rugby means that Joe Schmidt is almost certainly not going to have an entirely full deck of fit players to choose his World Cup squad from, but let’s pretend that won’t be the case for this exercise.

With Ireland’s closing two pool fixtures coming against Russia and Samoa, Schmidt is likely to be able to chop and change front-liners in those games. 

Scotland are a major threat in Ireland’s opener, while the meeting with hosts Japan the following weekend is also very dangerous. With that in mind, Schmidt is likely to frontload for the two opening games and attempt to start with a bang.

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15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Sean O’Brien
8. CJ Stander

Ryan Bailey

With this being the Ireland team we think Joe Schmidt will name for the World Cup opener, it won’t be the side that takes to the field against Scotland at Yokohama’s International Stadium on 22 September.

Two variables, form and injury, will colour Schmidt’s selection, but for the purpose of this exercise, the Kiwi has a full panel to choose from, which presents a number of fascinating selection headaches.

The Pool A opener against Gregor Townsend’s Scots being the first of four outings in a two-week period, Schmidt will also have to be cognisant of the intense tournament schedule, while trying to achieve the right selection balance to ensure Ireland’s passage through to the knockout stages.

With this in mind, and the fact there are games against Russia and Georgia to follow, Schmidt will surely select his strongest hand for the opening outings against Scotland and hosts Japan, before rotating his resources thereafter.

The big decisions come in the second and back row, as the backline — when all fully fit — largely selects itself. Iain Henderson’s untimely finger injury is a setback for his chances but presents Tadhg Beirne with a golden opportunity to push his credentials during the Six Nations.

However, the first-choice pairing of Devin Toner and James Ryan is hard to overlook for a game of this magnitude, as Ireland will look to start their campaign on the right foot and lay down a marker for the rest of the tournament.

In the back row, Schmidt has a plethora of options and despite Sean O’Brien’s likely return from injury in the coming weeks, his lack of big game minutes in the last two years sees the number seven shirt handed to the ever-reliable and hard-working Josh van der Flier.

15. Rob Kearney
14. Keith Earls 
13. Garry Ringrose 
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Josh van der Flier
8. CJ Stander

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