Comment: The battle between John Cooney, Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion is the most intriguing in Joe Schmidt's 42-man squad
When you name 24 forwards for a Guinness series and that list has no new caps it means either your head coach is not getting out and about watching too many games, or else he’s very well sorted for depth. Joe Schmidt wouldn’t be watching westerns of a Saturday afternoon when he’s supposed to be out at a match, so ahead of the World Cup - never mind next month - Ireland are very strong at forward.
By comparison the three uncapped players behind the scrum looks wildly adventurous, but it’s hardly that. Ross Byrne has built a solid block of experience behind him, facilitated by the absence of Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson. And Sammy Arnold, who is lucky enough to make this cut, announced himself last season.
That leaves Ulster’s Will Addison. Having timed his Australian holiday last summer to conveniently tie in with Ireland’s tour – he spend the Melbourne week, leading to the second Test, with the squad – all he needed to do was put one foot in front of the other to make the squad for November. And he’s done a bit more than that.
After a bright start with Ulster this series is the perfect opportunity for him to make his case for the World Cup. Darren Sweetnam too is rewarded for consistently good form. He’s in a pretty congested lane where Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour would all be ahead of him – as well as Andrew Conway whose versatility across the back three is a huge asset.
The absence of Conor Murray was straightforward even if the story surrounding his neck injury has been the opposite. Surviving a four-game series without him however is a cloud with lots of silver lining. The battle now between John Cooney, Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion will be the most interesting across the squad, with all benefitting from game time that wouldn’t be possible with Murray around. And the World Cup will be the time to cash in that added experience.
Up front the big winner has been Finlay Bealham. It’s appropriate that we are rolling around to the second anniversary of the Chicago game and he’s back on the scene. Two years ago against the All Blacks he looked like he was set for the long haul. He didn’t get a sniff in the following Six Nations, and a bit-part on the tour to US and Japan the next summer was the extent of his progress. He looks fitter now, and having targeted inclusion in this squad he’ll be an asset, none of which is appealing to Marty Moore who, having made the decision to come home, has a way to go yet.
Bealham’s Connacht teammate Ultan Dillane evidently has a distance to travel. He too looked the part against the All Blacks in Chicago and if 2016 was a dream season for him then it fell back a year later, and further again in 2018. The competition across the Ireland pack is savage but the emergence at second row of James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne only complicates the issue further. Dillane, a talented player, will need an unlucky break for someone else to get a look in. In the meantime Ireland have never gone into a November series in such good nick.
Ireland squad for the November internationals:
Rob Kearney (Leinster), Will Addison (Ulster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Darren Sweetnam (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Sammy Arnold (Munster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), John Cooney (Ulster), Luke McGrath (Leinster)
Cian Healy (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Niall Scannell (Munster), Rory Best (capt, Ulster), Seán Cronin (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster),Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), James Ryan (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Quinn Roux (Connacht), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), Sean O’Brien (Leinster), Dan Leavy (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Ulster).