Wednesday 18 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Schmidt's squad for England says a lot about his plans - and some players will be mightily relieved'

Andrew Conway (left), Ross Byrne (centre) and Tadhg Beirne (right) are all in the Ireland squad to face England at Twickenham.
Andrew Conway (left), Ross Byrne (centre) and Tadhg Beirne (right) are all in the Ireland squad to face England at Twickenham.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When Ross Byrne was planning his social diary for August it’s reasonable to think he might have reckoned on a free weekend when Ireland were scheduled to play England in Twickenham.

As with the build-up to the 2015 World Cup, there was always a decent chance that Joe Schmidt would run with three 10s across his four warm-up games – in that case, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Johnny Sexton – but Byrne wasn’t supposed to be in the three this time around.

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Nothing changes the picture quite as dramatically as injury however. So with the clock ticking on the fitness of Joey Carbery, Byrne’s autumn is on hold. Before this series kicked off he was looking at leading the charge for Leinster in the opening defence of their PRO14 title – in Treviso on 28 September. Now he’s not so sure.

It’s hardly a stretch then to see Sexton, Jack Carty and Byrne filling the outhalves’ slot. And if that pans out, then Schmidt will be going to the World Cup with just one of his chosen few – the missing men being Paddy Jackson and Carbery, both of whom were involved on Ireland's summer tour two years ago.

That spin to the US and Japan saw Carbery abandon with an ankle injury after the game against the Eagles in New Jersey, and Jackson join the tour in Japan, having been ruled out of the American leg because of visa issues over his pending trial.

The coach will want to avoid a morale-damaging result against an England side who are further down the track. With Tonga and USA first up in the tournament itself they effectively have another two warm-ups before the picture changes dramatically with Argentina and France back to back, so currently they are well ahead of themselves.

And for a few in the spine of their side it will be their third start on the trot: Elliot Daly at full back, George Ford at outhalf and Billy Vunipola at number eight. By comparison Ireland - with a full-on opening to the tournament against Scotland and then Japan – are still a game away from this level. So Schmidt is in for a sweaty afternoon.

For a few of his players they will be mightily relieved just to be in the match-day squad. Another run for Andrew Conway bodes well for his chances of making the cut at the end of the month. So too South African Jean Kleyn, for whom injury seems the only possible impediment to inclusion in the World Cup 31, and Tadhg Beirne.

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Schmidt doesn’t consider Beirne big enough to be a starting lock in Test rugby, but appreciates what he brings to a handful of positions off the bench. His comments at the team announcement were interesting.

"I'm not saying he's (Beirne) not good enough to start in either of those positions but he's nice security, having him covering all five of those back five positions, albeit number seven we'd probably need to mix and match somebody, but he can cover numbers six, eight or five.”

The good news for Beirne is he’s packing his bags, which will surely mean Rhys Ruddock’s potential involvement would be a repeat of four years ago when he flew out as a replacement after the carnage against France. The bad news is Beirne is unlikely to change Schmidt’s mind about a starting slot in the short time the coach has left.

Unless of course, injury intervenes. With three games to go it feels like an obstacle course to be negotiated before a head count is made on those left standing.

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