Tough Calls

Schmidt faces into 'horrible couple of days' finalising World Cup squad

The Ireland head coach must now make the hardest decisions involved in his job.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 1st 2019, 12:08 PM

Murray Kinsella reports from Cardiff

WHILE JOE SCHMIDT’S moods in media dealings after games can be hard to predict or analyse at times, the Ireland head coach cut a clearly downcast figure on Saturday evening following his team’s 22-17 victory over Wales.

While an improved performance in Cardiff as Ireland bounced back from their hammering against England was encouraging for Schmidt, he now faces into the hardest part of the job.

joe-schmidt-and-warren-gatland-ahead-of-the-game Schmidt with Warren Gatland before his team's win in Cardiff. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Letting players they haven’t made matchday 23s and wider squads is difficult at any time, but calling someone to tell them they won’t be going to the World Cup – unless injuries mean a late call-up – is on another level.

The win in Cardiff might have sealed a few last decisions for Schmidt and his coaches, clearing a couple of headaches in that sense, but informing players of those final calls is not a pleasant experience.

“I think it’s a horrible couple of days, it’s probably the worst couple of days I’ve had in coaching, this time four years ago,” said Schmidt at Principality Stadium yesterday.

“I know how hard these players are working and how hard they’ve worked over a number of years because this is the pinnacle, this is what they’ve wanted to go after, this is what we talked about last Christmas as being very much the sole focus of the year.

“And for those players who miss out, it’s going to be a real body blow, and I’m incredibly conscious of that and I sympathise with it.

“But you can only take 31 and that’s the brutality of it.”

While there are certainties to travel in Schmidt’s current 40-man squad, there are many who will be on tenterhooks over the next 24 hours or so, anxiously checking their phones on Sunday as they hope for good news.

Schmidt is due to confirm a 31-man squad with World Cup on Monday, meaning he is likely to speak with players who have missed out before then. 

The public announcement of his 31-player group won’t come until Sunday 8 September, the day after the return clash with Wales in Dublin, allowing him to make any late changes that unfortunate injuries might require.

the-ireland-team-huddle-after-the-game Rory Best speaks to his Ireland team after the win in Cardiff. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Nailing the make-up of his squad will be crucial for Schmidt, meaning he has big calls to make on the numbers of locks, back rows, halfbacks, centres and back three players in the final group.

“Right now, I’m not sure myself because we need to have a look back and see what our balance is,” said Schmidt. “Whatever you do, there’s always a risk you don’t get it quite right. I don’t think we got it quite right last time [in 2015].

“Sometimes, retrospect is the only time you actually know if you got it right or not because going forward you predict as best as you can and do as much work as you can to ensure that they’re in the right physical condition, that they are ready to go.

“But you don’t really know until you send them out there and they’re in the thick of it, really.”

Captain Rory Best and Niall Scannell look certainties to travel at hooker, with Sean Cronin and Rob Herring in a contest for the final of three spots. The impactful Cronin will certainly be hard to leave out.

Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, John Ryan and Andrew Porter look like good bets for the five prop spots, while Iain Henderson, James Ryan and Devin Toner are set to go as lock options, with Tadhg Beirne offering second row and blindside flanker cover.

With CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony and Jack Conan favourites to go in the back row, the versatile Jordi Murphy could provide cover in all three slots if he travels to Japan.

Conor Murray is nailed-on at scrum-half, while Kieran Marmion may edge out Luke McGrath if Schmidt only brings two scrum-halves, as he did in 2015.

Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Jack Carty are now seemingly in line to go as the options at out-half, while Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw look certainties in midfield.

Chris Farrell offers physicality if Schmidt opts for a fourth centre, while Rob Kearney and Jacob Stockdale are locked in as back three players.

bundee-aki-makes-a-break Bundee Aki on the charge against Wales. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Schmidt is likely to name the versatile Jordan Larmour too, having invested heavily in him up until this point, while Keith Earls will definitely travel if he recovers from his current knee injury.

That may leave Andrew Conway and Will Addison battling for the final spot in the 31-man squad. Both possess the ability to play in several positions but Addison is the more versatile. We don’t envy Schmidt these calls.

Whatever way the squad goes, Schmidt will field something close to his first-choice XV next weekend in Dublin when Warren Gatland’s Wales come to town presumably at full strength.

Henshaw and Sexton are in line to make their first appearances of the season having “trained the house down” on Thursday and Friday. There was no update on Earls yesterday, but Ireland will hope to see him back on the pitch too as they look to build on the improvements in Cardiff.

With James Ryan and Kilcoyne leading the way, the levels of physicality were certainly much better from Ireland yesterday.

“That’s what they want to feel; that they’re up for it, that they’ve got energy reserves,” said Schmidt.

“I knew we were heavy-legged last week against England. I know we created a lot of angst for people outside the environment but we knew how hard we had worked in Portugal, we knew we would be a bit vulnerable.

“It was still unacceptable to fall off as many tackles as we did, to fall as far behind as we did, so I think we restored a bit of self-confidence this week as much as anything.

“We’ve got to make sure we build on that again this week, there will be some changes and, talking to Gats, those changes will happen and it will be a whole different contest again.”

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