Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Joe Schmidt could live to regret leaving John Cooney out of World Cup plans'
JOE SCHMIDT has built Ireland’s depth to a point that some very good players will miss out on the World Cup final cut in the weeks to come.
The coach has spoken about the difficulty of making these decisions and informing disappointed players, but today he reduced his panel from 43 to 40 by leaving John Cooney, Finlay Bealham and Mike Haley behind as he took his team to Portugal.
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Bealham and Haley always looked likely to miss out at some point, but the omission of Cooney came as a surprise and gave some indication of where the half-back selection is moving.
The Dubliner has been a revelation since moving from Connacht to Ulster to fill Ruan Pienaar’s boots two seasons ago, establishing himself as a clutch goal-kicker, leader and controlling No 9 during a turbulent couple of seasons.
International recognition has been slower in coming, but he has been a regular presence in Schmidt’s squads during the latter half of this World Cup cycle, winning eight caps.
Of the four scrum-halves in the squad, he’s seen the least action since 2016 but he was heavily involved in the last Six Nations; coming off the bench in four games and scoring a try against England.
His versatility has long been thought to be an important part of his arsenal as the World Cup approached. A natural footballer, Cooney has played a number of senior matches at out-half as well as at scrum-half and his ability to slip across, when needed, seemed to be a real string to his bow.
However, it looks increasingly likely that Schmidt is willing to repeat the selection he made in 2015 by bringing three out-halves and two scrum-halves to Japan.
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As it stands, it would appear likely that Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Jack Carty will travel as out-halves, with Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion the two No 9s. Ross Byrne and Luke McGrath remain in the squad, but they have work to do to force their way in.
Schmidt looks set to take that risk despite the concern over travel times that will limit the ability to call up reserves from home.
However, it does indicate that Ireland are pretty confident of having Carbery fit in time to face Scotland on September 22.
He’ll be the third choice No 9 in the same way Ian Madigan was four years ago. Now, like then, we are unlikely to see him actually play there, but he has played for UCD in the position and is really only an emergency option.
The decision to take five half-backs would be a risky one, but it would allow Schmidt to carry more centres and outside backs to Japan and he may have been convinced to make room for Chris Farrell and Andrew Conway on the back of their performances last week.
However, the best laid plans can go out the window in a moment at a World Cup as the experienced coach knows well from four years ago.
Sexton, Carbery and Murray have all endured their own injury woes in recent times and should one or two of those go down, it could put a strain on resources with no out-half experience in the outside backs.
The decision to omit Bealham is good news for Andrew Porter and John Ryan, who can rest easy that they are going to Japan as back-up tightheads. Both players can cover the loosehead position, meaning Jack McGrath and Dave Kilcoyne are in a direct shootout for the fifth propping spot and the Munster man holds the edge.
A surprise inclusion in the initial squad, full-back Haley won his first cap last weekend and can leave with his head held high. He was always unlikely to go, but now knows Ireland’s systems and is ready to be called upon if Rob Kearney goes down.
Similarly, Beahlam and Cooney have spent enough time in camp to be able to join up with the squad at a moment’s notice if required. With nine more cuts to come, the feeling of relief among the 40 players who boarded the plane to Faro yesterday won’t last long.
The final 31 will be named in three weeks’ time and those still there will be convinced they are in contention.
For the trio omitted yesterday, that feeling is gone and Schmidt will move on with the process in the hope that he won’t regret leaving Cooney at home.