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'I'll get a few things wrong' - Schmidt ponders Ireland's World Cup squad

The Kiwi head coach admitted the process of picking 31 players is proving hugely difficult.

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON IN Limerick, Joe Schmidt, Less Kiss, Simon Easterby, Greg Feek and Richie Murphy sat down for their latest World Cup squad selection meeting.

The Irish coaching team have been undertaking these conferences for some time now and the process will continue throughout the summer and right up to the deadline of 31 August, when they’ll have to name their finalised 31-man group.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has been humming and hawing over potential World Cup selections. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Indeed, Schmidt and his lieutenants sat down again early this morning to sift through last night’s defeat to the Barbarians and ascertain whether they’d learned anything of real value.

It’s certainly no easy task, and countless coaches over the years have spoken of the difficulties of whittling down the names, deciding how many of each position they need to bring, who the versatile options are, how many specialists out-halves they require…

The list goes on.

Despite his winning experience and reputation, Schmidt admits that the process is proving as difficult for him as it has been for any other international coach. Ultimately, he makes the final call and the Kiwi is aware that his inexperience in this task might lead to mistakes.

First up, Schmidt will name an extended squad for the summer training and World Cup warm-up schedule, likely to contain somewhere in the region of 46 players, before that number is whittled down for September.

We got together for a couple of hours [yesterday] and couldn’t make our minds up,” said Schmidt after last night’s clash with the Baa-Baas.

“Some of what we decided was let’s have a look tonight, and let’s get across to the Emerging Ireland tour and have a look at another couple of guys over there. That’s partly why Stuart McCloskey and Noel Reid didn’t play tonight, and Rhys Ruddock didn’t play tonight. They’re on the Emerging tour and we’ll get a look at them then.

“But it was even good to have them in the environment to see them train and to see how well they’ve fitted in.

Joe Schmidt Ultimately, the selection headaches are welcome. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Noel has obviously been with us before when we went to Argentina. Rhys has played a lot of games with us, but to get Stuart McCloskey in was really good value and he has slotted in with ease.”

Schmidt indicated that he and his coaching staff will head for Belfast tomorrow evening to take in the Guinness Pro12 final, a chance to “have a look at a few more players” in the Munster side who are vying for World Cup selection.

Overall, the feeling Schmidt expressed last night in Thomond Park is that there are many decisions still to be made.

“We tried to narrow it down and say what would the 31 look like, what would 46 look like or would it be 47 or 45,” said Schmidt.

I think it is really difficult and I’d have to say [the Barbarians game] was another piece in the puzzle that hopefully can give us a little bit more clarity. From that, we’ll go to Belfast on Saturday and get together on Sunday and start to work out how things are shaping.”

It’s been widely presumed that Schmidt will opt for a split of 17 forwards and 14 backs in his finalised 31-man squad, as will many other nations.

Deciding on how many players in each position to bring with him to England and Wales is another matter altogether, one Schmidt admits might see him make errors.

“We had all sorts of combinations today, to be honest,” said Schmidt. “I haven’t done this before, I know I’m going to get a few things wrong, because it is inevitable when you first go into something.

Paddy Jackson Paddy Jackson seems certain to travel. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Is it a 17/14 split? If it is a 17/14 split, can you take three out-halves and three scrum-halves? That leaves you quite light elsewhere,” said Schmidt.

“We have players who are quite versatile in that back five, will that suffice? You know, I’m sure you guys [journalists] are throwing those same questions around, if you can help me out!

“I’m sure you’ll throw a few teams into the media over the next two weeks. I’ll try and get a look at them, get some guidance because it is tough.

It is especially tough when you don’t have a lot of recent games. We get quite a good lead in to the World Cup, but we don’t get a great lead in to making selection decisions in two months time. So, as I say, it’s a learning experience for me as well.”

On the out-half situation, Schmidt outlined that last night’s Baa-Baas game had given Ireland the chance to “contrast” Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson, the initial verdict being that “both did pretty well in difficult conditions.”

As is his way, Schmidt didn’t fail to mention Munster’s Ian Keatley, who will be further assessed tomorrow evening in Kingspan Stadium.

Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony have both been ruled out of that Pro12 final tomorrow, and Schmidt said that injury concerns have only made his World Cup selection duties all the harder.

“That’s part of why we’ve wanted to keep our powder dry a little bit until after Saturday. I saw Conor go down here last weekend and thought ‘that could be a total change in our thinking’, because Conor would obviously be in our squad.

Conor Murray goes off injured Murray's injury gave Schmidt a sleepless night or two. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Therefore you start thinking about ‘right, what are our alternatives?’ And that’s something that is very, very difficult, because you try to keep a balance of experience as well.

“Conor’s experience might allow someone who’s less experienced to be involved, and if those balances get upset by injury then it may mean that you re-jig the whole position, the positional mix that you’re looking at.

“So it is a little bit complicated, and it is definitely restrictive.

Even week-to-week you’re thinking that you might have to make changes because of injury. How long’s that injury going to be? Because if you replace a player he can’t play again in the tournament, and therefore you’ve got to have good cover there.”

With Murray set for six weeks of rehab on his knee issue, the hope will be that O’Mahony is back in a similar timeframe and well prepared for the World Cup. Both are almost certain to be included, but Schmidt will be leaning on his fellow coaches as they make their final decisions.

“I’ve spoken to coaches who have been to the tournament, and I’ve read the reviews from the tournaments in the past and tried to learn from those so I minimise my errors,” said Schmidt.

“But as a coaching staff, Les is a guy who’s really important to us because he’s been there and understands the conundrum that it is. Feeky’s been there last time too, so we’re trying to work it out as best we can.”

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Murray Kinsella

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