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'We still don’t have a concrete 31': Ireland coaches sharpen axes for final RWC cut

Joe Schmidt has a lot of difficult conversations ahead of him this weekend.

IT’S DECISION WEEK for Joe Schmidt and his Ireland coaching staff.

A view of Ireland squad training today Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Monday is the World Rugby deadline for submitting a 31-man squad for the World Cup, meaning minutes on both the training field and Test arena are at an extreme premium for players hoping to be a part of England 2015.

So far in Ireland’s World Cup preparations, Schmidt has been eager to avoid the word ‘cut’. He has walked the walk too, continuing to boast a squad numbering around the 42 mark while most other nations trimmed initial numbers to the mid 30s and many have already finalised the travelling party.

The theory behind the early cull in other nations was to help the core personalities gel the group together and to remove the necessity to give fringe players valuable training reps that could be put to better use by likely starters. For Schmidt, the preference is to see perceived outsiders keep the likely starters on their toes.

Jack Conan and Jamie Heaslip Happy campers: Jack Conan and Jamie Heaslip are probably at opposite ends of Joe Schmidt's 'squad certainty' spectrum. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The provincial system has been a big help n allowing Schmidt ‘not cut’ players. The coming hours will bring another raft of players released from Ireland duty to “put the boots on” for their province this weekend. Ireland’s coaching staff will insist that those players remain in with a shot of inclusion on the list submitted on Monday. It will be a long shot though.

The practice must be great for maintaining confidence of the wider group, but it doesn’t make the coach’s job any easier when he is finally forced to make a real cut. Schmidt has 10 or 11 very difficult conversations to look forward to after pitting his front-liners against Wales on Saturday.

“There are obviously a number of guys that we feel are in that major block in the 31,” says Les Kiss, attempting to explain the decision process while giving nothing away.

“But we’ve tried to keep it as open as possible, provide the opportunity to have them assessed in sessions and meetings so we still don’t have a concrete 31.

“I dare say after the provincial matches we’ll still have a couple of quandaries on Saturday night. That’s a great thing to have. It’s important for us to be diligent on that in the numbers front, not only for the rugby team and where we think we can go in the World Cup but also for the individual himself.”

Writ large on that numbers front will be the name Cian Healy. As each team is required to name specialist props among their replacements each matchday, including Healy in the squad before he is cleared to play will open up space for a third loosehead.

Greg Feek, Joe Schmidt and Simon Easterby Greg Feek and Simon Easterby will have a big say in the make-up of forward contingent. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Unless a prop capable of playing both sides of the scrum – that’s you, Michael Bent – was included, then Schmidt would almost certainly be looking at an 18-13 split between forwards and backs. The key to making that split work is the versatility of Ian Madigan. Although Kiss denied that the utility back had been tested at scrum-half, he did use Michael Cheika’s Australia squad (which includes only two recognised scrum-halves) as a precedent that might just make perfect sense for Ireland.

“We’ve got four half-backs there at the moment,” Kiss said of the considerations for the at number nine.

“Obviously those questions will be asked, because you look at the permutations, numbers and combinations in any world cup 31. You’ve got to ask what will give you the best balance.

“The truth is, if you did like Australia have (with two scrum-halves), they’re not going to start (Matt) Giteau as a nine. It’s always a back-up. Whenever you assess that, you understand the risk profile: if one of your nines get injured you can fly someone in within 48 hours. That was their decision. We’ll make a decision Sunday night, but it’s nice to have some options there.

This weekend is our last chance to see a couple of combinations and individuals, with the provinces or with ourselves, to put the hand up and hopefully we’ve got some big headaches on Sunday.”

It’s the worst part of a coach’s job, the time even a successful setup comes in for angry criticism from both inside and outside the camp. And it’s all ahead of Schmidt, Kiss and co. this week.

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