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Schmidt ready to make harsh calls after assessing who was 'chasing their tail'

Ireland head for training camp in Portugal this week, but all eyes remain on the exit door as 43 men try to squeeze into 31 spaces.

Updated Aug 12th 2019, 8:41 AM

RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP AUSTRALIA NEW ZEALAND Reece Hodge celebrates a try as the Wallabies beat New Zealand in Perth. Source: AAP/PA Images

IT WAS ANOTHER weekend that added extra layers of intrigue, interesting clues and misdirection about what fate might lie ahead of Ireland in their ninth tilt at a Rugby World Cup next month.

Although most of the juicy tidbits were offered up from the southern hemisphere rather than the southside of Dublin.

Ireland’s potential quarter-final opponents New Zealand once again showed encouragingly human traits under the sleek black facade as they were trounced by Australia after a Scott Barrett red card on the stroke of half-time in Perth.

Another possible last-eight foe, South Africa, showed early fallibility in their defensive line too. But ultimately, they resumed their exhilarating form in attack and secured the Rugby Championship title after a bonus point win in Argentina, inspired by a brilliant display from out-half Handre Pollard.

Argentina South Africa Rugby Championship Pollard grounds a decisive try in Salta. Source: Florencia Tanjun

Ireland had their own maestro of a number 10 on show. Unfortunately, Joey Carbery commanded unwanted headlines as he sustained a nasty looking injury after putting his side in position to eventually see Italy off on a 29-10 scoreline.

Head coach Joe Schmidt made all the positive noises he could about Carbery in the minutes after the win and the Munster playmaker will be given every chance to prove fitness and maintain his spot as Jonathan Sexton’s understudy. Yet, at times like these, rugby players are in ruthless pursuit of a limited number of spaces. And coaches have no room for sentiment when narrowing their options to 31.

For any nation, that number will represent a threadbare crew, considering Test matches require 23 players to face punishing collisions and athletic tests. And Schmidt used his post-match press conference to take a cut off the governing body.

“With 31 players I think it’s a very tight number that World Rugby limit you to,” said the Ireland boss.

“You know, they talk about player welfare, but we’ve a six-day turnaround into a five-day turnaround and 31 players, that’s very, very complicated.”

The magic figure of 31 leaves us all in the odd position of overlooking the international fixtures ahead of Ireland close to home in the coming weeks. Instead the mind is preoccupied with potential combinations when the final squad reveals itself.  Eddie Jones has chosen to bullishly make a rod for his own back by announcing England’s 31 nice and early today – albeit with the caveat that he may well make changes later.

Schmidt, though, is more than happy to put off the array of marginal calls for a later date.

“I don’t fancy it any day to be honest,” said the Kiwi after victory over Italy.

“Probably four years ago it was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever really had to put my mind to because I know that team and how much the players want to get to a World Cup.

“It is, for Ireland probably more than some other teams, where we need to perform. This year from the very start of the year that has had to be the target. It means the players want to be at the top tier tournament in the world.

“I think I could probably name certainly 20, maybe a few more, but the coaching staff will meet tomorrow morning after having had a look at the game and have a chat about probably who we think is putting their foot forward in the best possible manner and also look at guys who were maybe chasing their tail and need to demonstrate a little bit more.

“If we think we do need to trim the squad a little bit, as harsh as it will be then collectively we will make those decisions.

“Individually, I will make contact with, and hopefully have time to meet with, players. If not then it is that phone call they do not want to receive and I do not want to really deliver.”

Jordi Murphy celebrates scoring a try Jordu Murphy, playing number 8 on the day, celebrates a score. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While the hit-out against Italy was always going to be an exercise primarily about shaking off rust, Schmidt bemoaned his side’s lack of ‘acceleration to power clear of the Azzurri after earning control of the tie.

“We actually got quite close on a few occasions getting through the line… but we didn’t finish behind it and part of that’s acceleration.

“We just have to be a little bit better at the ruck because you can’t accelerate if there are bodies lying in or around the ruck and we’re a little bit slow and a little bit inaccurate in what we are delivering. So, from that perspective, it’s all part of the challenge.”

Which, of course, takes us back to the big question: who are the men who will feature in that challenge?

Joe Schmidt during the post match press conference Schmidt speaks after his penultimate match at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A few will be accepted as specialists, but versatility will be the key for many.

Saturday saw Chris Farrell deployed at inside centre, Tadhg Beirne at blindside and Andrew Porter at loosehead. Hardly alien positions to any of the three, but slightly removed from their favoured roles none the less.

Schmidt also raised the possibility of Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw rolling back the years by featuring in the back three again, while it will be fascinating to see how he settles on his back row options in Japan with just five spaces available.

“That’s the sort of versatility that they can still offer and still be potentially a starting player,” he said after the nod to centres Ringrose and Henshaw.

“Peter O’Mahony started the third Test in Australia at openside, he can play at eight and he plays at six. CJ Stander started a European semi-final at seven. We know he plays six and eight for us so that versatility across the back row is really important for us.”

That’s two among the conundrum. Josh van der Flier, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O’Donnell, Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock must also face the pros and cons board in the coaches’ room, with Beirne and Iain Henderson’s willingness to run from number 6 putting an even tighter squeeze on.

Schmidt will likely make further inroads this week to the 12 names he must cull before flying east. When the squad regather in Portugal this week it will be a chance to build further cohesion, on and off the field, for a defining September and October after the never-straightforward matter of meeting England in Twickenham.

“I think it’s great going there,” says Rory Best of the Portugal trip. The hooker was one of the 20 names left off duty for Saturday’s low-octane win over Italy and he is keen to feel the squad sync up.

“It’s a good opportunity to work hard in what will be some fairly hot conditions. But I think we’re off Thursday and we’re off Saturday and training in between and those down days are brilliant.

“To get away… some boys will go to the beach and some will play golf. Some will just hang around somewhere. That’s the sort of stuff that will be good, just to spend a bit more time.

“It’s just to get away from the distractions of other things. (Down days at home) you get a little bit disjointed whereas, when we’re all away together, we’ll all have a down day together…

“It’s something you take for granted because everyone knows each other so well through the provincial set-ups and it’s a reasonably established and settled squad and you can take for granted sometimes that you need to spend a bit of time together and find out what’s going on… to chat about anything other than rugby and spending time getting to know people.”

Schmidt will certainly make sure they know their enemy before touching down in Tokyo.

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Sean Farrell

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