Saturday 21 September 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Joe Schmidt's announcement was chaotic but Ireland's World Cup squad is full of dynamism'

Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt prior to the international friendly at The Principality Stadium, Cardiff last Saturday
Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt prior to the international friendly at The Principality Stadium, Cardiff last Saturday
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Over in England and Wales, the World Cup squads were revealed with carefully planned, slickly produced videos that featured figures from the players’ background; former coaches, parents and club stalwarts who played some part in their journey to Japan.

Perhaps Ireland had a similar plan in place and were planning to go around the houses from New Ross to Enniskillen, to Cape Town and Auckland ahead of Sunday’s squad announcement but they never got the chance.

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Instead, they went at 1pm on Monday with a social media post featuring a graphic that included the 31 names in English and Japanese.

A clever idea, although a number of Japanese speakers got in touch to point out that the Kanji versions of Iain Henderson and Niall Scannell’s names were spelled incorrectly.

It was that kind of day for the union, who were forced to bring their plans forward by six days because their versions of the squad appeared on Independent.ie and elsewhere.

Thinking it could hold for six days after the players had been told was naive, but it was the plan.

Instead, Joe Schmidt gave a 10-minute interview to RTÉ in lieu of a press conference and then went about his business.

Now that it’s all out in the open, Schmidt has shown his hand.

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Last night he assembled his 31 players in Carton House, plus a few of those who he’d dropped on Sunday to help with numbers, and began to plot for his final home game as Ireland coach on Saturday.

Everyone now knows where they stand and it stops being about the 31-man squad and starts being about the XV that starts against Scotland.

And Schmidt has options in every position.

Understandably, the focus on Monday centred on those who were left out but when you look at the names included on the list, it is arguably the strongest squad Ireland have ever taken to the World Cup.

Ireland boss Joe Schmidt sprung some surprises in World Cup squad
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt sprung some surprises in World Cup squad

They have had better individuals, but in terms of quality options across the 31 it is a strong set of players.

Schmidt’s chief concern now is how to manage his returning players.

Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton have yet to see any action and are likely to come into the team for the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

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Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joey Carbery has stepped up his rehab from ankle surgery, but is unlikely to be risked.

That match is a platform from which Ireland can launch their campaign.

Just 15 days out from the opener against Scotland, this is the last chance to build into the tournament. Expect the strongest possible team.

What is clear from the list of names is the coach is looking to move with the times by picking his most powerful, dynamic players. Across the board, size and ballast has won the day.

Jean Kleyn is more dynamic than Devin Toner, Chris Farrell is the more powerful option than Will Addison, Rhys Ruddock is a bigger hitter than Jordi Murphy, Dave Kilcoyne is more explosive than Jack McGrath and Seán Cronin is a superior ball-carrier to Rob Herring.

The call between Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion was the toss of a coin, but everywhere else there is a pattern.

Japan will be warm and the pitches will be hard. The game has pivoted towards rewarding teams who dominate collisions and Ireland have come out on the wrong side of that battle in their defeats this season.

Ireland will look to be the dominant force against Scotland and Japan in their pivotal pool matches, while two of the most powerful teams around, New Zealand and South Africa, loom large in the quarter-finals.

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South African-born Jean Kleyn has been selected for Ireland's World Cup squad ahead of Devin Toner. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The biggest selection call of all, of course, is the decision to take Kleyn over Toner. One option only made his debut last month having qualified on residency, the other has featured in more of Schmidt’s Ireland games than any other player.

It was a ruthless decision, in keeping with the coach’s reputation and it sent out a message that nobody is safe if they slip off form.

In truth, the decision has been coming. Toner has been on the bench for a number of key games in recent seasons, but his lineout prowess meant the coach kept coming back to his door.

Schmidt won’t have his safety net in Japan. If things go wrong out of touch, it will be up to Iain Henderson and James Ryan to fix it.

What Schmidt has lost in lineout nous, he hopes to gain in the scrum where Kleyn’s power on the tighthead side is highly prized.

His work around the pitch at the breakdown and in the tight exchanges in the maul is also rated by the coaching staff who have been impressed by his attitude since he first came into training.

Still, his performance in the hammering at Twickenham was hardly a ringing endorsement of his ability.

No one stood out that day, but the team was bullied and their enforcer was nowhere to be seen.

He has clearly earned the trust of the coaches, however, and he gets the chance of a lifetime.

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Versatile Ulster back Will Addison was left out of Ireland’s World Cup squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Will Addison fits the bill for the kind of game Ireland want to play and, after his fine performance at full-back in Cardiff he appeared set to travel.

But there were just too many doubts about his fitness.

Like Toner, he missed a lot of rugby at the end of last season and a calf problem limited his training in pre-season.

The Ulster star covers a range of backline positions, has an abundance of pace and is a clever footballer in the Jared Payne mode but he loses out to Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour.

In Ruddock, Schmidt can make use of a powerful option who can slot in to the No 6 jersey if Peter O’Mahony continues to provide an option at openside.

The make-up of the back-row against Wales will be worth watching, because with Dan Leavy and Seán O’Brien missing out, it is one of the most open positions.

Now that the squad has finally been named, we move on to the next phase of World Cup preparation.

Hopefully, it’s a little less chaotic than Monday.

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