Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Italy represents the last chance saloon for many of those who will take the field'
Opportunity knocks, but the door is closing fast for a host of World Cup hopefuls.
With just 320 minutes of rugby to play before the tournament kicks off in Japan, Saturday’s opening warm-up game against Italy represents the last chance saloon for many of those who will take the field.
It might be the first game of the season, but the pressure is already on.
Joe Schmidt put the plans in place for this selection long before he travelled home for New Zealand and the players and coaches have been executing his plans in his absence.
Of the 23 players selected to face the Azzurri, only five go into the game with a degree of confidence about their place on the plane.
For Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Devin Toner, Cian Healy and Iain Henderson, this game is about getting through with a decent performance that propels them towards the team when Ireland play Scotland on September 22.
For everyone else, it’s a potentially make or break opportunity to force their way into the final squad of 31.
Munster club-mates Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell and Mike Haley may be very different players playing in different positions, but they are potentially vying for one spot on the plane along with Dave Kearney who returns to the left wing after a long absence from the Ireland scene.
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Luke McGrath has the first audition for the back-up scrum-half slot, but has Kieran Marmion breathing down his neck as John Cooney watches on anxiously from afar.
Ulster-bound prop Jack McGrath has a real chance to stake his claim having fallen out of favour behind Dave Kilcoyne, while Rob Herring and Andrew Porter can both put themselves in strong positions.
And in the second-row, Jean Kleyn gets his first cap having qualified to play for Ireland on residency yesterday. He needs to hit the ground running or he risks losing out to the established quartet of locks already in the squad.
Rhys Ruddock is in a strange position in that he leads the team, but is not assured of his place in the squad while Jordi Murphy’s run at No 8 offers him a chance to show his wares in another position.
Tommy O’Donnell knows more than anyone about the dangers of these warm-up games, but this is effectively a free hit for a player who has been out of the international picture for three seasons.
For Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Carty there is an opportunity to move closer to cementing their places in the squad off the bench, with Beirne’s selection in the No 20 shirt suggesting he’ll get a cameo in the back-row.
Come 4pm on Saturday, their audition will be over and there’s no guarantee they’ll get another window of opportunity.
Next week, Schmidt is expected to whittle his squad down further ahead of the warm-weather camp in Portugal and there are players involved this weekend who will be out of the running by then.
It’s a ruthless business, but the show must go on.
Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Chris Farrell, Dave Kearney, Joey Carbery, Luke McGrath
Jack McGrath, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Jean Kleyn, Rhys Ruddock (C), Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy
Niall Scannell, Cian Healy, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Mike Haley