'I'm really surprised Schmidt hasn't considered that' - Luke Fitzgerald has his say on Ireland's scrum-half debate
As Ireland's build-up to the World Cup intensifies ahead of this weekend's warm-up game against England, the picture regarding who will make the flight to Japan is beginning to clear.
The latest cuts announced last week saw prop Finlay Bealham and fullback Mike Haley dropped but it was the departure of Ulster scrum-half John Cooney that raised the most eyebrows as the squad was reduced down to 40.
Being cut at this point is a feeling that 34-times capped Luke Fitzgerald can empathise with, having been cut by then-coach Declan Kidney in the build-up to the 2011 edition before making the final squad under Joe Schmidt four years later. And the retired ex-Leinster winger believes his former boss is making a mistake in retaining Connacht's Kieran Marmion ahead of Ulster scrum-half Cooney as back up for Conor Murray.
"I know Joe has a thing for Kieran Marmion because he came on and did so well on the wing against Australia a couple of years back. I'm less sure if it means leaving John Cooney and Luke McGrath out," Fitzgerald said, speaking on the return of The Left Wing, Independent.ie's rugby podcast in association with Aldi.
"I think Luke McGrath is a better player than Marmion. I think it's pretty close between John Cooney and Luke McGrath, they're the number twos. I'm really surprised he (Schmidt) hasn't considered that.
"I think Marmion's done nothing wrong but it was less clear who was the number one choice for Connacht between himself and Caolin Blade last season so I was really surprised to see him drop Conney out.
"He seems to have a hangover from when John was a young guy in Leinster but I think what John has done in Ulster has been a big part of making them a better team."
With the number of scrum-halves in the squad now down to three, it's expected that another will be cut prior to the tournament when the final squad of 31 is named. For the last World Cup in England four years ago, Schmidt did exactly that, bringing three out-halves and two scrum-halves before bringing Isaac Boss in during the tournament after injury forced his hand.
But Fitzgerald thinks that bringing three out-halves and scrum-halves each is a more sensible approach with potential replacements in other positions easier to bring up to speed mid-competition.
"I'd actually take three scrum-halves. I know it can be a problem in terms of other personnel if you get an injury but just bring someone else out if that happens. It's less challenging to do that in other positions," he explained.
"Bring three half-back pairings because they're the heartbeat of the team, they're the link between your forwards and your backs. Having your personnel around the camp and running more reps with the team is important.
"Coming in as a half-back from out of the fold is a big challenge. I think it's a mistake to not keep them exposed to the tempo and the timing of the team because they are that heartbeat. They touch the ball more than anyone and I think you need your guys used to that timing."