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Have Ireland built better depth? Comparing the 2019 RWC squad to 2015

We’ve broken down Joe Schmidt’s squad position-by-position.

DEPTH, DEPTH, DEPTH.

Since the 2015 World Cup, when Ireland were shorn of five key men before their quarter-final defeat to Argentina, Joe Schmidt and the IRFU have insisted that bringing up the quality of players underneath the national team’s starting XV has been the key priority. 

Few nations could survive the loss of players as important as Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne – as well as Tommy Bowe early in the quarter-final – but Schmidt will hope the work done since 2015 has left Ireland better equipped to deal with adversity.

jonathan-sexton-tadhg-furlong-and-james-ryan-celebrate-after-the-game Ireland have had some big wins since the last World Cup. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

As well as covering for injuries and suspensions, greater depth ensures competition for starting places, and Schmidt will also hope that his options in 2019 bring about improved performances from those lucky enough to start World Cup fixtures.

Just 11 of Ireland’s original 31-man squad for the 2015 World Cup have been named in Schmidt’s group for Japan this time around, underlining the extent of the change in the four years since – through retirements, injuries, loss of form, and the emergence of several new stars.

Below, we work through each position to detail how things have changed for Ireland between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups. 

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Loosehead prop

2015: Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong

2019: Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter

Cian Healy comes into this World Cup as Ireland’s first-choice at loosehead prop, having enjoyed a stunning return to peak form over the past two seasons.

Having come close to retiring before the last World Cup, Healy was not at his best for Ireland in 2015, though he managed to wrestle the number one shirt from Jack McGrath for the key games versus France and Argentina.

irelands-dave-kilcoyne Dave Kilcoyne has leaped past Jack McGrath into the squad. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Twenty-nine-year-old McGrath – a three-Test Lion with 1,531 minutes of game time for Ireland in this World Cup cycle - has not made the squad, having had a difficult 2018/19 season, and loses out to the remarkably in-form Dave Kilcoyne, who looks set to be one of the most explosive replacements at this World Cup, while offering a genuine starting option.

The then 22-year-old Tadhg Furlong provided loosehead cover in 2015, without being needed to flip across, but Andrew Porter looks better equipped to provide that depth this time around – having only converted to tighthead as recently as 2017. Porter’s most recent outing at loosehead against Wales in Cardiff was impressive.

All in all, Ireland look better equipped at loosehead than four years ago, with Healy and Kilcoyne set to deliver a highly-impactful double act.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,377 Cian Healy
477 Dave Kilcoyne
66 Andrew Porter

__________

Hooker:

2015: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss

2019: Rory Best (captain), Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell

Four years on and heading into his final tournament as a player, 37-year-old Rory Best remains Ireland’s first-choice hooker and he’s well established as captain too, having taken over the role in 2016.

Leinster man Sean Cronin played off the bench three times in the 2015 World Cup but has had just two starts for Ireland in the current cycle, meaning he is clearly seen as providing bench impact in 2019.

rory-best-after-the-game Best will play in his fourth World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The now-retired Richardt Strauss was Ireland’s other hooker in 2015 – starting against Romania and pushing Cronin out of the matchday squad for those key games versus France and Argentina. 

Niall Scannell is the new face at hooker for this World Cup and would appear to be the next in line to start games if Best is rested or unavailable. Whether Ireland are in better shape at hooker in 2019 is arguable, but Best will be desperate to finish on a strong note.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

2,024 Rory Best
593 Niall Scannell
453 Sean Cronin

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Tighthead prop:

2015: Mike Ross, Nathan White, Tadhg Furlong

2019: Tadhg Furlong, John Ryan, Andrew Porter

The picture has changed rather dramatically for Ireland at tighthead prop, with Mike Ross – four starts at the 2015 World Cup – and Nathan White – one start and four sub appearances – both retired.

Tadhg Furlong, who made just one replacement appearance against Romania four years ago, is the undisputed first-choice now and has helped to redefine the role of tighthead props with his mobility and skill levels.

irelands-john-ryan John Ryan is one of Ireland's three tightheads. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Thirty-one-year-old John Ryan has emerged as a strong set-piece operator and powerful defender since his debut in November 2016, leaving him in competition with the extremely dynamic 23-year-old Porter to back-up Furlong.

Porter’s ball-carrying and jackaling strengths may make him more suited to the bench impact role, but Ryan offers real value to Ireland as a possible starter at tighthead. Ireland appear to have more variety for this World Cup compared to 2015.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,766 Tadhg Furlong
546 Andrew Porter
534 John Ryan

__________

Second rows:

2015: Paul O’Connell (captain), Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan 

2019: James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne

Again, Ireland have very different options here, with only Iain Henderson remaining part of the World Cup squad four years on.

While there are two different positions in the second row – loosehead lock and tighthead lock – we have grouped them together for the purposes of this article.

Paul O’Connell was Ireland’s captain and primary tighthead lock last time around, starting three games before suffering a career-ending hamstring injury in the final pool game against France. 

Devin Toner – omitted this time around – was the first-choice partner to O’Connell, while Henderson stepped into the starting XV in the captain’s absence for the quarter-final defeat to Argentina, with Toner shifting to tighthead.

Donnacha Ryan, now exiled in France, started only once against Romania and had two sub appearances in 2015.

ross-moriarty-and-tomas-francis-with-bundee-aki-jonathan-sexton-and-james-ryan James Ryan is a key man for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In 2019, the freakishly brilliant James Ryan is one of the first names on Ireland’s team sheet and has been their first-choice tighthead lock in recent times.

With Toner left at home, Henderson and recent addition Jean Kleyn are in contention for the other second row spot in the biggest games. 

Kleyn is a heavy-duty tighthead lock – which could free Ryan to conserve some energy at loosehead lock at scrum time – while Henderson is the most experienced lineout caller in the squad in Toner’s absence, potentially taking that responsibility from Ryan.

It was notable that Henderson – predominantly a loosehead lock – spent the closing stages of Ireland’s warm-up clash with Wales in Cardiff at tighthead lock, as Schmidt perhaps prepared for life without Toner.

Tadhg Beirne is the other option for Ireland at loosehead lock, although Schmidt appears to rate him more highly as a blindside flanker. Nonetheless, Beirne provides potentially game-changing cover in the second row with his mobility and turnover threat.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,251 James Ryan
1,238 
Iain Henderson
179 Jean Kleyn
158 Tadhg Beirne

__________

Blindside flanker:

2015: Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy, Iain Henderson

2019: Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Rhys Ruddock, Tadhg Beirne

Peter O’Mahony is back as Ireland’s apparent first-choice option at blindside flanker four years on from 2015, when his tournament was ended by an ACL injury in that attritional pool clash with France.

Jordi Murphy – left out by Schmidt this time around – was the second choice at blindside in 2015, starting there against Romania and in the quarter-final against Argentina. Rhys Ruddock was a late injury call-up to replace O’Mahony and got 10 minutes off the bench against the Pumas. Henderson provided a further blindside option in 2015.

tadhg-beirne Tadhg Beirne is an option at blindside. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland look much better stocked this time around, with Ruddock included in the 31-man squad and CJ Stander providing another strong option at blindside – where he spent the first two years of his Test career.

Ruddock and Stander’s physicality from the number six shirt may be tempting for Schmidt, with O’Mahony capable of playing at openside and Jack Conan offering a strong option at number eight.

Beirne’s versatility also makes him a live option at blindside, while Henderson has some history in this position too.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,353 Peter O’Mahony
1,087 CJ Stander
592 Rhys Ruddock
129 Tadhg Beirne
70 Iain Henderson
59 Josh van der Flier
26 Jack Conan

__________

Openside flanker:

2015: Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry

2019: Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, CJ Stander

The injury to Dan Leavy was a major blow to Ireland’s chances of glory at this World Cup, after the Leinster man had announced himself as a true force at Test level during the 2018 Grand Slam run.

Leavy had been set to make a huge impact in Japan but he and Sean O’Brien – the starter at seven in 2015 – have both been ruled out with injury. With Chris Henry now retired – having started the quarter-final four years ago after O’Brien was suspended for striking Pascal Papé – the picture is very different at openside.

tomos-williams-and-josh-van-der-flier Josh van der Flier is a tireless presence. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The underrated Josh van der Flier has been present for many important Ireland wins in recent years and is the only player in the squad who is primarily an openside flanker.

O’Mahony’s impressive start at seven against Wales in Cardiff two weekends ago hints at another possible option, while Stander moved to openside twice during games in the Six Nations as Conan came onto the pitch at number eight. 

Ruddock has also had six stints at openside during this World Cup cycle – including 21 minutes there against Wales last weekend – meaning Schmidt has options. 

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

948 Josh van der Flier
153 Rhys Ruddock
102 Peter O’Mahony
86 CJ Stander

__________

Number eight:

2015: Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien

2019: CJ Stander, Jack Conan

The durable Jamie Heaslip started all five of Ireland’s games at the 2015 World Cup in this position, completing 80 minutes in four of them and making way for O’Brien only in the Romania fixture.

However, with Heaslip having been forced to retire due to injury, Stander has been the man in possession of Ireland’s number eight shirt since the end of the 2017 Six Nations, delivering consistent performances for Schmidt.

cj-stander-with-his-daughter-everli-after-the-game CJ Stander will play in his first World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Twenty-seven-year-old Conan’s form has had a major upswing over the past two seasons, however, and he provides a second viable option for Ireland at the back of the scrum.

With O’Brien having predominantly been an openside, Ireland certainly have better choice in this role in 2019. Stander can, of course, also play at blindside or possibly even openside, meaning the Munster man and Conan could even line up in the same back row.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,170 CJ Stander
896 Jack Conan

__________

Scrum-half:

2015: Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan

2019: Conor Murray, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery

Heading into his third World Cup, 30-year-old Murray remains a key player for Schmidt and will be the first-choice at scrum-half once again.

Schmidt has opted to bring just two scrum-halves to this World Cup, as he did in 2015, when Murray started four games and came off the bench against Romania, with Eoin Reddan having worn the number nine shirt in that fixture.

luke-mcgrath-arrives Luke McGrath arriving in Japan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster’s Luke McGrath is the second option at scrum-half this time around and it will be fascinating to see if Schmidt opts to give the 26-year-old starts against both Russia and Samoa in the second two Pool A games.

Either way, it looks like both scrum-halves will be involved on all match days.

Ian Madigan was the emergency third option at scrum-half in 2015 but wasn’t required, while Joey Carbery will be filling that role this time around.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

2,298 Conor Murray
396 Luke McGrath

__________

Out-half:

2015: Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson

2019: Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty 

Thirty-four-year-old Sexton is back as Ireland’s first-choice out-half again, having started three games at the last World Cup before succumbing to injury after that brutal France clash and missing the quarter-final.

Madigan, who had started against Romania and come off the bench against the French to impressive effect, was handed to the number 10 shirt for the quarter-final defeat. Jackson, meanwhile, made only one appearance off the bench against Romania, as Schmidt opted not to send him on versus Argentina.

jonathan-sexton Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Thirty-year-old Madigan is now playing in England with Bristol, while 27-year-old Jackson – whose IRFU and Ulster contract was revoked in 2018 – is with London Irish, having played 772 minutes at out-half in the current World Cup cycle.

Taking their places this time around are 23-year-old Joey Carbery, who has been Sexton’s understudy in recent years, and 27-year-old Jack Carty, whose career has moved onto a new level in the last two seasons.

If he recovers from an ankle injury suffered in the warm-up win over Italy, Carbery looks like the next in line after Sexton, while Carty has settled in well at Test level having only debuted this year.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,819 Johnny Sexton
474 Joey Carbery 
189 Jack Carty

__________

Left wing:

2015: Dave Kearney, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Simon Zebo

2019: Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, Jordan Larmour

Four years ago, Keith Earls started two of Ireland’s pool games on the left wing but then moved to outside centre for three games – including the quarter-final – after Jared Payne suffered injury.

Dave Kearney occupied the number 11 shirt for the Italy, France and Argentina games, while Luke Fitzgerald and Simon Zebo were also possible options in this slot – though neither had a start there in the 2015 tournament.

In 2019, Jacob Stockdale is the clear first-choice left wing for Ireland, having racked up 16 tries in his 21 Tests so far.

jacob-stockdale-arrives Stockdale is one of Ireland's key attacking weapons. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Before Stockdale’s 2017 debut, Earls was largely used on the left wing in this World Cup cycle, before moving to the right, but he remains an option in this position along with the versatile Jordan Larmour.

Garry Ringrose came off the bench on the left wing against Wales last weekend, performing well, and Schmidt has spoken about his versatility on a number of occasions recently.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,595 Jacob Stockdale
707 Keith Earls
55 Jordan Larmour
28 Garry Ringrose 

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Inside centre:

2015: Robbie Henshaw, Darren Cave, Luke Fitzgerald

2019: Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell, Garry Ringrose

Schmidt opted to bring only three players who were primarily centres in 2015, with Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne and Darren Cave travelling, but Fitzgerald and Earls providing midfield cover too.

Fitzgerald started Ireland’s opening game of the tournament against Canada in the 12 shirt, while Cave was there against Romania, but Henshaw was the key man with starts at inside centre against Italy, France and Argentina.

bundee-aki-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Bundee Aki is in superb physical condition. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

This time around, Bundee Aki appears to be the man in pole position at inside centre, having been a consistent and durable performer for Schmidt since his debut in November 2017.

Henshaw remains a strong possibility in the 12 shirt, of course, while Munster’s Chris Farrell and even Ringrose are also fine options for Schmidt here – even if both are predominantly 13s.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,501 Bundee Aki
870 Robbie Henshaw
248 Garry Ringrose
149 Chris Farrell

__________

Outside centre:

2015: Jared Payne, Keith Earls, Darren Cave

2019: Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell

Jared Payne was the main man at 13 four years ago but lasted just two games at the World Cup due to injury, with Earls moving in from the wing to occupy this slot.

Ireland look better equipped here in 2019, with Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell all providing very strong starting options at outside centre.

chris-farrell-on-the-attack Chris Farrell is a powerful option in midfield. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Earls remains an option to shift in if required during games, while Larmour can do the same, but Ireland are well stocked to make an impact from 13.

It will be intriguing to see how Schmidt selects in midfield, with four frontline centres giving him the chance to mix and match based on fitness, form, and the opposition.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,319 Garry Ringrose
677 Robbie Henshaw
374 Chris Farrell
252 Keith Earls
25 Jordan Larmour

__________

Right wing:

2015: Tommy Bowe, Dave Kearney, Keith Earls

2019: Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour

After Kearney had started the opening game in 2015 on the right wing, the experienced Tommy Bowe took over as the first-choice number 14 all the way through until the quarter-finals. 

Neither man is back this time around, with Bowe having retired, and Earls is the obvious starter on the right wing if fit and available.

keith-earls Keith Earls is a key player for Ireland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Andrew Conway is capable of playing at fullback but has been used on the right wing more often by Schmidt and Munster. The jack of all trades, Larmour, also has valuable experience on the right edge, leaving Ireland in good shape in this position.

Again, it’s notable that Ringrose also played 32 minutes on the right wing away to Wales two weekends ago, ensuring Ireland have a degree of flexibility in possible matchday 23s too.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,333 Keith Earls
634 Andrew Conway
331 Jordan Larmour
32 Garry Ringrose

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Fullback:

2015: Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo, Dave Kearney

2019: Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Joey Carbery

Set for his third World Cup, 33-year-old Kearney remains the first-choice fullback for Ireland, having been picked by Schmidt for the big games essentially whenever available during this World Cup cycle. 

Kearney started three games at the last World Cup, including those major clashes with France and Argentina, while Simon Zebo had starts against Romania and Italy in the number 15 shirt. Dave Kearney provided another fullback option in 2015.

With Zebo – who has 418 minutes at fullback in this cycle – now exiled in France, the options behind Kearney are different this time, with 22-year-old Larmour appearing to be next-in-line in Schmidt’s eyes, while Conway is another possibility in this role.

jordan-larmour Larmour is set to provide back-up at 15. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That Larmour has only had four starts at fullback at Test level, as well as moving there five times during games, could be a concern in the event that Kearney suffers injury, particularly as Conway has only started there twice for Ireland.

Henshaw had a start at 15 during this year’s Six Nations and Carbery is an intriguing possibility in the fullback role – potentially even during games – while Earls has some history as a fullback.

Minutes in this World Cup cycle:

1,726 Rob Kearney 
387 Jordan Larmour
173 Andrew Conway
112 Joey Carbery
72 Robbie Henshaw
41 Keith Earls

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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