Close Calls

Schmidt sets World Cup ball rolling with exciting 44-man training squad

Jean Kleyn will qualify for Ireland before the World Cup warm-up games begin.

EVEN WITH A group as big as 44 named, the fine health of Irish rugby is reflected in the fact that we could list a strong crop of players who can count themselves unlucky not to have been included in Ireland’s World Cup training squad.

Indeed, Joe Schmidt made phone calls to around 10 players in recent days to let them know that they had been very close and to keep themselves in decent nick. 

Some of those to miss out have had injury problems in recent times. Ulster’s Will Addison had a back procedure in April and Connacht’s Quinn Roux missed the end of the season with a head injury, for example.

Will Addison Bryan Keane / INPHO Addison had a back procedure in April. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

That said, Ireland have listed only Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy as being unavailable due to injury, the two openside flankers so cruelly denied their opportunities to play in Japan.

Stuart McCloskey, Tom Farrell, Jack O’Donoghue, Darren Sweetnam, Adam Byrne – most supporters will have their own picks around who should have been included, but the quality of this extended squad is worth underlining too.

Ireland will go into the World Cup under more pressure to deliver than ever but they will also go in with a superb squad and seeing it listed out in today’s press release highlighted that again.

Tadhg Furlong, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Conor Murray, James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls – the list of Ireland’s elite players goes on. Schmidt possesses some world-class weapons for his second and final World Cup in charge.

The head coach and his assistants bring the 44-man squad together from 16 June and from then on, begin the process of whittling this group down into a final 31-man squad to fly to Japan before their Pool A opener against Scotland on 22 September.

Schmidt has included two uncapped players in this initial training squad and it will be intriguing to note if they end up in the mix for that final squad.

Munster fullback Mike Haley looks like a long shot at this stage, with Schmidt having some well-established options in the back three.

24-year-old Haley, a native of England, has already trained with Ireland since his move from Sale Sharks last summer, qualifying through his Kerry-born grandmother.

Mike Haley and Ross Byrne Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Haley has been first-choice at Munster all season. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

He has been criticised by some Munster fans for his performances this season but he is an excellent defender and communicator – attributes that Schmidt values – while his attacking game has flourished at times in the Pro14. 

Johann van Graan has repeatedly backed him as Munster’s starting fullback and while Haley will likely feel he has much more to offer, his first season in red has been encouraging, most importantly to Schmidt.

Haley’s Munster team-mate, Jean Kleyn, is perhaps the most interesting addition in the entire squad. 

The 25-year-old is a native of South Africa who will qualify to play for Ireland, having lived here for three years and moved before World Rugby changed the residency rule up to five years.

Kleyn officially becomes eligible for Ireland on 8 August, two days before Schmidt’s side have their first warm-up game against Italy in Dublin. 

There had been plenty of mutterings that Schmidt was a big fan of Kleyn’s hard-nosed and hard-working edge and confirmation comes with his inclusion in this squad. 

In many ways, Kleyn is the new Quinn Roux – a South African who qualifies for Ireland, excellent at clearing out rucks, a superb scrummager with a big engine around the park, and an enforcer with his aggression. 

Kleyn doesn’t have experience calling lineouts but clearly Schmidt believes the imposing Munster lock is worth a closer look. Some will have gripes about a South African native being involved with Ireland but Schmidt is within his rights to call on Kleyn.

Leinster wing Dave Kearney is another notable call-up, having last won an Ireland cap in the November 2017 win over Fiji in Dublin.

Dave Kearney scores a try despite the efforts of Timoci Nagusa Dan Sheridan / INPHO Kearney scores a try against Fiji in 2017. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The 29-year-old was, of course, a starting wing for Ireland in Schmidt’s first Six Nations success in 2014, as well as at the 2015 World Cup when he started in four games, including the quarter-final defeat to Argentina.

Kearney has faded out of contention in the years since as injuries, form and the emergence of other players have seen him out of the picture at Leinster for some of the biggest games too.

But the Louth man has enjoyed a superb campaign in 2018/19, making 12 starts for Leinster and, perhaps most crucially, impressing in his three starts in the Champions Cup against Wasps, Toulouse and Ulster in the quarter-final.

Kearney’s aerial strength and work-rate are to Schmidt’s liking and he edges ahead of the likes of Sweetnam and Adam Byrne in the back three mix.

In midfield, meanwhile, Munster man Rory Scannell gets into the squad ahead of the likes of McCloskey and Tom Farrell, having been an impressive figure once again for his province and registering an impactful outing in the Pro14 semi-final against Leinster. 

With four other seriously strong options in midfield, Scannell will be hard pushed to make it onto the plane to Japan but his consistency and hard work are rewarded with the chance to convince Schmidt.

Having named 44 players today, the truly hard work is ahead of Schmidt and his assistant coaches now get set to whittle his options down to 31.

With tough calls to make in literally every department, who’d be a coach?

Gavan Casey is joined by Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell for a review of the 2018/19 season, and cast an eye forward to next year and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.:

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