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Schmidt's squad 'utterly committed' to getting beyond World Cup quarter-finals

The Ireland head coach is pleased with the balance and profile of his final 31-man squad.

AS THE DUST begins to settle on the shock of Devin Toner being left out, Ireland fans who have been aggrieved at Joe Schmidt’s decision to omit the 33-year-old will have the chance to pay more attention to who is actually in the 31-man World Cup squad.

Debate over the scrum-half call, the back row selection, and the back three slots will surely continue, but there is a whole lot to like about this Ireland squad.

Schmidt agonised over the final few decisions and hated delivering the bad news to the likes of Toner, Will Addison and Kieran Marmion. 

peter-omahony-and-cj-stander Ireland trained hard again in Carton House yesterday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Yet, as he now faces into a final warm-up game against Wales, there is excitement about what a dynamic-looking group can achieve, Schmidt having combined proven experience with youthful energy, as well as versatile players to cover most eventualities.

“I like the balance,” said Schmidt of his squad. “Inevitably, it was tougher to do this time because we didn’t feel we had the comfort of a 45-minute flight to get someone to Cardiff or a half-hour flight to get someone to London [as was the case at the 2015 World Cup].

“This time we feel like we have to have really good cover within the squad and I like the fact that I feel our cover is pretty good. Now, you get two injuries in one position and we could be struggling – everyone knows they have got that same vulnerability.

“For me, the guys that we have got, I know they are going to be utterly committed to trying to get beyond that quarter-final phase.

“The most frustrating thing about my job is that I can work as hard as I like but I still can’t guarantee you anything another than we will try to put our best foot forward.”

Schmidt’s squad contains veteran leaders such as Rory Best – heading to his fourth World Cup – Johnny Sexton, and Rob Kearney, but there is a youthful edge to the squad too.

The average age is 26.5, almost two years less than was the case at the 2015 tournament, with 22-year-old Jordan Larmour, 23-year-olds Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Joey Carbery, as well as 24-year-old Garry Ringrose, dragging it down.

Schmidt said it “wasn’t utterly coincidental” that Ireland have ended up in this position, with the 2017 tour of the US and Japan having been a crucial part of his planning, with Stockdale, Porter and Ryan all making their debuts on that trip.

“That was the big investment for us,” said Schmidt. “We felt if we could make the investment then, that was a pivotal time to springboard two years down the track into a good, strong position.

james-ryan-john-ryan-and-iain-henderson James Ryan could be one of the stars of the World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Unfortunately, one of the key guys in that particular tour was Dan Leavy – he’s not available to us but he is one of those guys who plays incredibly big for not a huge man.

“There’s going to be other guys who are required to play big but also required to play incredibly fast. [Pool A opponents] Japan play at a rate of knots and they’ve been really impressive. Their resilience is incredibly admirable.”

Schmidt is anticipating high-tempo rugby in Japan and Ireland have been preparing as such this summer, their training sessions pushing the players harder than ever in terms of ball-in-play time.

In 2015, the average ball-in-play time in the World Cup knock-out games was 37 minutes and 34 seconds, but rugby has changed in more recent years, with forecasts for this World Cup suggesting ball-in-play times of closer to 50 minutes in some games. 

Dynamism and mobility will be key, but Schmidt will also be counting on the experience and know-how of players who have been at the top level of Test rugby for years now.

37-year-old Best will lead Ireland into this World Cup, while 34-year-old Sexton and 33-year-old Kearney are among the other elder statesmen of Schmidt’s group.

Sexton has Tom Brady-inspired ideas about playing on for years to come, but this is set to be their last World Cup.

“Rory made 12 tackles in the last 20 minutes last weekend,” said Schmidt. “Now, I know that’s because we never had the ball in the last 20 minutes, so that was all that was on the agenda, but his work-rate was huge for us.

“In the England game, the searing linebreak he made off the inside pass – maybe searing is overstating it – but he did get into good space and I’m sure Ben Youngs didn’t like to see him bearing down upon him! The quality of the small things off the ball that he does are positive.

jonathan-sexton-and-joe-schmidt Johnny Sexton in discussion with Schmidt at Ireland training. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Rob Kearney has trained really well this week. He has been an incredibly solid performer for us. If you think back about some of our really fantastic memories, even in recent seasons, Rob Kearney has often been at the heart of those.

“Johnny’s in good form. I don’t think he’s got any intention of giving the game up so I’m not sure how long he’ll go on, but he will hopefully hit the ground running on Saturday and that’ll just lead him nicely to two weeks’ time.”

Sexton will get his first outing of the summer on Saturday in the number 10 shirt in that final warm-up game against the Welsh, while Robbie Henshaw and the crucially-important Keith Earls are also set to return.

Joey Carbery’s ankle is likely to keep him out for now but his recovery is going well, meaning that Schmidt’s squad is in fine fettle physically.

Ireland could certainly have used Leavy’s explosive power and dominant mindset, while Schmidt may yet have regrets about leaving the likes of Toner behind, but the head coach is confident that this squad has the qualities to make history in Japan. 

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Murray Kinsella

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