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Schmidt deviates from the presumed plan with World Cup surprises

The Ireland head coach has named an athletic squad for the tests ahead in Japan.

WITH EVERYONE – INCLUDING World Rugby vice-president Agustín Pichot – weighing in with their opinions on Joe Schmidt’s final 31-man squad, today served as a reminder about just how big World Cups are.

Ireland’s Pool A opener against Scotland is just 20 days away and the anticipation moved up another level with today’s announcement of the 31 players who will travel to Japan next week, barring any cruel injuries in the final warm-up against Wales on Saturday.

As so often, when we felt we had Schmidt’s plans figured out, he sprung a surprise or two.

The omission of Devin Toner has understandably caused shock. A genuine stalwart under Schmidt, the 33-year-old lock was impressing in Ireland’s second row as recently as the November 2018 win over the All Blacks, but the picture has changed rapidly.

joe-schmidt Schmidt has made some big calls in his squad. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

For what seemed like the first time ever, Toner suffered injuries this year to his ankle and knee, and his body finally seems to be paying the price for the big workload he has delivered in this World Cup cycle – only Conor Murray played more for Ireland.

Toner has been Ireland’s primary lineout leader in recent years and his absence will put pressure on Schmidt’s squad in this regard, with Iain Henderson now tasked with taking on the role.

As has been much discussed, that duty didn’t go well for Henderson at Twickenham two weekends ago, when the Irish lineout fell apart, although it improved last weekend in Cardiff, when they won six of their seven throws. It is worth noting that all of those wins came at the front of the lineout, with the only throw to the middle being picked off by Wales, but Henderson will have taken some belief from that.

James Ryan – deeply impressive and looking bigger on his return in Cardiff – will help in that regard and he has called the lineout for Ireland before, doing so against Wales during this year’s Six Nations. Still, there is real risk in leaving Toner out.

Toner was Ireland’s starting tighthead lock up until Ryan’s emergence as a force, when he switched over to the loosehead side, but any presumption he would cover Ryan is gone for now, with the twice-capped Jean Kleyn travelling in that slot instead.

It seems most likely that Kleyn will feature in the pool games against Russia and Samoa and though the South African native’s selection sits uneasily with some, Schmidt and Ireland are simply playing by what were the rules in terms of residency.

Kleyn failed to impress against England two weekends ago, as did virtually every Irish player, and his relative lack of mobility and jumping power shouldn’t be overlooked in assessing why the lineout went poorly that day.

However, Schmidt is a fan of Kleyn’s scrummaging, ruck work and defensive aggression, meaning he will travel to Japan as one of the fresher faces.

irelands-jean-kleyn Jean Kleyn is in as one of Ireland's second row options. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

As for the unlucky Kieran Marmion, Schmidt has gone away from what most of us presumed was the plan and instead backed Luke McGrath as his second-choice scrum-half.

Marmion has been reliable for Ireland and started that win over the All Blacks last November, although it’s worth also remembering that McGrath made an impact off the bench in the last quarter of that victory.

The Leinster man has featured far less for Ireland under Schmidt, of course, although he was injured for the 2018 and 2019 Six Nations, which skews the figures to a degree.

Word is that McGrath has been among the most impressive performers on the training pitch in Ireland’s pre-season this summer – something Schmidt values deeply – picking up off the back of another impressive campaign with Leinster in 2018/19.

There were the finest of margins between Marmion and McGrath in this decision – Schmidt would have loved to bring three scrum-halves – but the Leinster man just edged the call. In being picked, McGrath follows in the footsteps of his uncle, Derek McGrath, who went to the 1987 World Cup with Ireland.

Meanwhile, the exclusion of Jordi Murphy in the back row also came as a surprise, with the Ulster man’s versatility in covering blindside, openside and number eight having been seen as an important strength.

The fact that Peter O’Mahony played at openside in Cardiff last weekend didn’t bode well for Murphy, though, and the Munster captain has clearly shown Schmidt he can step up to the task in that position. The consistently impactful Rhys Ruddock is named instead, primarily as a blindside but having also played at openside for Ireland.

The physical Ruddock was a late call-up to the last World Cup but now gets a chance to influence proceedings from the off. He seems like a strong candidate to captain Ireland in one of their pool games against Russia or Samoa.

Ulster’s Will Addison has been edged out and, if we remove ourselves from the immediacy of his impressive performance against Wales last weekend, that is perhaps not the biggest shock. His graceful running style made him an attractive option for Schmidt, but the Ireland coach has other factors to consider.

irelands-will-addison Addison moved to Ulster in 2018. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Durability is chief among them, with the small squad size meaning that everyone needs to be fit to train and play as often as possible. Only returning from a back injury, Addison suffered a calf issue in Cardiff last weekend.

That said, Addison, Murphy, Marmion and others who have been left out at this point could yet play a role at the World Cup. This weekend’s warm-up clash with Wales will be full-blooded and while Schmidt will hope to avoid any injury setbacks, those left disappointed today will be standing by.

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Most of the rest of Schmidt’s squad had been expected, but it’s worth noting the inclusion of several players who will be traveling to their first World Cups.

Dave Kilcoyne looks in better physical shape than ever and has forced three-times capped Lion Jack McGrath out of the squad, while Munster’s 31-year-old John Ryan has had to bide his time to establish himself with Ireland but will travel. 23-year-old Andrew Porter, covering loose and tighthead, could be a star if he’s unleashed in Japan.

Tadhg Beirne had to take the road less traveled in his career, heading away to Scarlets, but deservedly takes a spot covering the second row and back row. He also goes as perhaps the finest jackal in Ireland’s squad and could play a key role in any success for Schmidt’s men.

Jack Conan has had to overcome a foot injury in this pre-season but could make a real impact on the hard ground in Japan, while Connacht’s Jack Carty has been on quite the journey to earn his spot as one of the out-half options at the age of 27.

Similarly to Beirne, Munster man Chris Farrell went abroad to make his name, shining in the Top 14 for Grenoble before returning to Ireland, and he offers dynamism amongst the midfield options.

As for the back three, Andrew Conway was expected by many to be a standout star for Ireland right from the beginning of his professional career but he has had to work very hard to get to this point. He looks very hungry to take his chances.

Add in the exciting talents of 24-year-old Garry Ringrose, 23-year-olds Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan, as well as 22-year-old Jordan Larmour, and there are many reasons for Ireland fans to be excited.

james-ryan-takes-the-ball-into-contact Ryan was superb against the Welsh last weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Joey Carbery passed fit to travel too, there is much cause for optimism for Schmidt.

Perhaps as important as anything, he retains belief that senior players like captain Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Rob Kearney will peak in Japan.

There is, as always, plenty to debate but Ireland’s squad certainly looks capable of competing. A strong showing against Wales on Saturday would send them off to Japan in positive form.

Right across this squad, there is athleticism and with the expectation being that the ball will be in play relentlessly in Japan, Schmidt will hope he has picked the players best-suited to the task.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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