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Dublin: 3 °C Tuesday 11 December, 2018
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The42 writers pick their 31-man Ireland Rugby World Cup squad

Your move, Joe.

MERCIFUL MOTHER! IT was an even tougher process than we imagined it was.

Still, after clearing away the Chinese food containers, coffee cups and the scrubbing the blood from the walls, The42‘s rugby writers finally left the office this morning in full agreement over the 31 names we expect to see when Joe Schmidt finalises his Rugby World Cup squad next week.

Joe Schmidt 'Actually, lads. i'd probably change that and that and that.' Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The starting point of the process was easy. We rattled off 21 names that were dead certainties to take a place in England next month. 21 names who regularly form the core of Ireland’s starting XV or the matchday squad. They are…

Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy (because, if there’s ANY chance he’ll be fit, he’s in), Iain Henderson, Eoin Reddan and because they’re versatile and obviously trusted by Schmidt: Jordi Murphy,  Ian Madigan and Luke Fitzgerald.

So that’s 21 down, 10 places still to be filled. Let’s start at the coal face.

Props

It’s at this stage we agreed on a 17 – 14 split between forwards and backs. We may have gone 18 – 13 had Leinster not revived the career of Michael Bent last season. The New Zealand-born prop can cover both sides of the scrum, so including him allows us to select the minimum required five in this section.

Cian Healy and Jared Payne Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The injury concern over Marty Moore is a further complication here. The ‘Baby Calf’ was a regular feature of Ireland’s two Six Nations successes, but as he hobbles around in a protective boot, Nathan White must feel close to being the oldest World Cup bolter ever seen.

Jack McGrath, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Michael Bent, Nathan White (if Marty Moore is not fit to travel).

Hookers

This is one of the more straightforward sectors to fill. Two hookers may be good enough for Michael Cheika and Australia, but it’s out and out madness if you ask us.

Rory Best and Sean Cronin have been contesting the number two jersey for some time. They’re in. And Richardt Strauss isn’t very far behind.

Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss.

Second Rows

This position could have been made a lot more difficult to sort through had Dan Tuohy put on a better display against Scotland. Unfortunately for the Ulster second row, it looks like he won’t be involved.

Instead, behind the cast-iron starters of Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner, we’ve gone for the blend of youth and experience of Iain Henderson and Donnacha Ryan.

Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan

Back Rows

Where once these were the most difficult slots to nail down in an Irish team, injuries to Rhys Ruddock and Tommy O’Donnell appear to have taken the mystery out.

We’ve decided to stick with five back rows, because of the presence of Henderson and Ryan who can both drop back to operate at blindside if needed.

Chris Henry and Iain Henderson Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After the recognised starting trio, Chris Henry and Jordi Murphy will offer specialist and utility back row options respectively.

Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry.

Scrum-halves

That’s the 17 forwards accounted for, now we get back to the tough calls.

At scrum-half Schmidt has two clear front-runners in Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan. They will clearly go, and  we think they’ll be on their own in the scrum-half club.

In other specialist positions we like to have at least three options, but we toyed with just bringing two number nines because, well, England is an hour’s flight away and we could get cover over with plenty of time to spare before matchday. But when it came down to it, we just couldn’t close off the squad without Isaac Boss, who has  looked to have the edge on an out-of-sorts Kieran Marmion.

Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss.

Out-halves

No position gets as much scrutiny as number 10, so we’ll keep this short. Paddy Jackson is Schmidt’s preferred starter whenever Jonathan Sexton needs a rest, but Ian Madigan’s goal-kicking ratio makes him difficult to leave out.

Jonathan Sexton and Paul O'Connell Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The recent talk of him also covering number nine made him a dead certainty too, but we’re more likely to see him at 12 in one of the opening two fixtures, so we’ve bracketed him as a centre for these purposes.

Jonathan Sexton, Paddy Jackson.

Centres

Nailed on are Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne. Beyond them, and with considerations made for back three options too, we’ve gone for the in-form Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald as possible alternative 13s. Obviously, both men can also do a mean job on the wing, but we’ve filed them here.

Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls.

Back three

27 down, four to go.

Let’s make that two because Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney have to travel.

Beyond them, Simon Zebo’s excellent form and ability to play fullback bodes well for a boarding card. Andrew Trimble’s foot injury scare appears to have passed and so we’d be shocked if the Irish Rugby player of the year 2014 didn’t make the final cut.

As we mentioned above, we played around with different combinations here. Leaving Felix Jones out was a tough call given he has been a regular back-up option for Schmidt. We pondered including Dave Kearney and especially Fergus McFadden as Schmidt favourites who can cover more than just wing.

IrelandÕs Andrew Trimble

Before settling on giving the final place to Boss, we also gave plenty of thought in to adding Gordon D’Arcy’s wealth of experience to the centre options. Eventually, though, dawn was breaking and we had to make the hard call.

Four back three options looks thin on paper, but we could have easily bracketed Fitzgerald and Earls in this section. Madigan has also spent some time at fullback, not to mention Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne who made their name at 15 in the very recent past.

Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo.

Who would you like to see instead?

World Cup provides an exciting opportunity for Leinster’s young stars

England set to omit in-form Cipriani from Rugby World Cup squad

*Neil Treacy was absent for this difficult and brutal selection process.

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