Joe Schmidt's alternative Ireland XV and potential 2019 Rugby World Cup squad
When Joe Schmidt reflected on his first Six Nations Championship title, in his second season in the Ireland job, he started the process of pencilling in those he expected to be heading to the World Cup the following year.
There were a few high-profile players already on the way out: Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll topped the bill. Marty Moore was some way back and would leave on injury grounds before departing altogether under his own steam.
D'Arcy and O'Driscoll had started all five Championship games. Filling that hole in 18 months looked like a massive challenge. Ten months later Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne paired up for their first Championship outing. It worked pretty well.
What the coach perhaps hadn't bargained on would be the number of players in RWC 2015 who were not involved, either through selection or injury, in any of the 2014 Championship squads. There would be a dozen in that category in his World Cup squad of 31. Two of them were props - Tadhg Furlong and Nathan White - who would travel with just three caps between them.
If Schmidt ends up with anything like a similar number going to Japan next year then something will have gone seriously wrong. Below we put down the names of 31 players - a squad size that is unlikely to change for 2019 - 26 of whom featured in the Grand Slam and would be very confident of making the plane. If you were to include Kieran Marmion and Jordi Murphy, who also have medals around their necks thanks to their efforts as winter turned into spring, then that goes up to 28. And you see how the shutters already are closing on the squad with 17 months to run before selection.
Given the absolute clarity of the challenge - to get to the last four in Japan - this degree of certainty is a good thing. Aside from luck, which is beyond your control, three criteria govern your chances in a World Cup: form, and it stretches back well beyond the three or four warm-up games leading to the tournament itself; depth of quality; range of experience.
Four years ago Ireland were put to the pin of their collars to get a decent side out against Argentina in the quarter-final. No Payne, Johnny Sexton, Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien or Peter O'Mahony. It was a hobbler. In heaping praise on the Pumas for their attacking game that day we forget the circumstances Ireland had to cope with, and that they had managed to work themselves back into a winning position before getting overrun.
Nathan White was on the bench that day. He was in the 'break glass in case of emergency' category. So there was no respite for Mike Ross. Moore's broken foot pre-tournament had taken him out of the picture, so the depth chart at tighthead was exposed as shallow.
That looks a bit healthier now. Moore's move to Ulster this summer gives Schmidt eight Test tightheads earning their corn on the island: Furlong, Andrew Porter, John Ryan, Moore, Finlay Bealham, Stephen Archer, Rodney Ah You and Michael Bent. We're not suggesting everyone on that list is waiting by the phone but if Ireland has ever had this level of comfort in such a critical position then we're not aware of it.
Elsewhere, however, there is an alarm bell ringing, and it sounded in 2015 as well. When Ian Madigan went to that tournament as back-up to Sexton, he did so as a very good all-round footballer short of a gallop at 10. He had played 10 games for Leinster in that calendar year. Only two of them were at out-half. He had featured there off the bench through the Six Nations but his only starts at 10 had been against Scotland in the World Cup warm-ups and Romania in the tournament proper.
Compared to Joey Carbery, however, that's the stuff of dreams. Here we are in chilly springtime and Sexton's current heir apparent has started one game this season at 10 - for Ireland against Fiji last November. Even last night, with Sexton out of the frame, Carbery was at full-back against Ospreys.
By a distance that is Schmidt's greatest concern in covering the bases for the World Cup. Carbery would be far better off in Ulster.
Meanwhile, the coach has space now to work on how he wants the team to play, and what bodies to slot into the next cabs off the rank. Luxury? Consider the quality of Rhys Ruddock, who at this remove is unlikely to make the cut for Japan. Yet you would be happy to have him captain Ireland in any game. Then look at the squad below, where Sammy Arnold and Caolan Blade are the only uncapped players. The one below that is what we'd select for the World Cup. Add in a couple of new faces - Nick Timoney would be a good example - and the national picture has never looked so colourful.
STRENGTH IN DEPTH
- SCHMIDT’S ALTERNATIVE TEAM: (15-9) A Conway; D Kearney, S Arnold, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; I Keatley, K Marmion; (1-8) D Kilcoyne, J Tracy, M Moore, K Treadwell, Q Roux, R Ruddock, J Murphy, J van der Flier.
Replacements: (16-23) R Herring, J Cronin, F Bealham, B Holland, S Reidy; C Blade, I Madigan, T O’Halloran
- POTENTIAL WORLD CUP SQUAD
15: R Kearney, S Zebo
14/11: K Earls, J Larmour, J Stockdale
12/13: G Ringrose, C Farrell, R Henshaw, B Aki
10: J Sexton, J Carbery
9: C Murray, J Cooney, L McGrath
1/3: C Healy, J McGrath, T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan
2: R Best, S Cronin, N Scannell
4/5: I Henderson, James Ryan, U Dillane, D Toner
6/7/8: P O’Mahony, T Beirne*, CJ Stander, J Conan, D Leavy, S O’Brien.
*uncapped, but likely to tour Australia this summer
Sunday Indo Sport