Friday 26 April 2019

Our expert panel on Joe Schmidt's 31-man World Cup squad, Rory Best's captaincy and what changes need to be made

Analysis

'Everything will be fed into Joe Schmidt’s computer as he processes the data and works his way towards finalising his 31-man squad for the World Cup.' Photo: PA
'Everything will be fed into Joe Schmidt’s computer as he processes the data and works his way towards finalising his 31-man squad for the World Cup.' Photo: PA

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The dust has now settled on Ireland's damaging Six Nations campaign and the clean-up begins with the provinces this weekend. For the coaching staff, there is room now to review the action and digest the performances. Everything will be fed into Joe Schmidt's computer as he processes the data and works his way towards finalising his 31-man squad for the World Cup.

He has until September 8 to submit his list of names to World Rugby.

In 2015, Schmidt selected 17 forwards and 14 backs. Eight of those spots went to front-rows, with three hookers and five props. Tadhg Furlong was tasked with covering both sides of the scrum. That left room for four second-rows and five back-rows.

The big panel of forwards left things tight behind the scrum where the decision to pick Darren Cave over Andrew Trimble raised most eyebrows. Ian Madigan covered scrum-half which allowed Schmidt to bring five half-backs, four centres and six outside backs.

That experience was an instructive one. He may not necessarily go for the same balance and has been trying to build depth and versatility where possible.

The distance of travel from Ireland to Japan will form part of the decision-making and may lead to him bringing more cover for certain positions.

He wanted the Six Nations to cement a few more places in his squad, but instead the defeats to England and Wales and strangely under-par performances elsewhere have undermined faith in some players.

So, there is much for him to consider.

THE BACK THREE

The first choice back three of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale appears to be set in stone, while Jordan Larmour's presence as a bench option is secure.

Much will depend on what Schmidt wants from his cover. Robbie Henshaw may get another chance to show he can come in for Kearney, while Andrew Conway was again affected by a badly-timed injury.

Will Addison missed the Six Nations altogether and lost World Cup momentum as a result, while Adam Byrne was in camp throughout but didn't get a look-in.

Joey Carbery did slip into full-back against England, but he's almost exclusively being considered at No 10. Schmidt wants Kearney to improve his play-making skills to contribute in the way Jared Payne did before retiring, but it is late in the Louthman's career for him to start spraying passes around.

Perhaps the answer lies in Paris.

For all that Simon Zebo's loose social media activity won't have done him any favours, he is too talented to ignore.

The timing would allow Schmidt full access to the Corkman who would greatly benefit from Jason Cowman's strength and conditioning regime and, if they can whip him into shape, he has all the tools required to add another layer to Ireland's attack.

THE MIDFIELD

Bundee Aki has been the one constant in Ireland's midfield. Alongside him will be Garry Ringrose and Henshaw. Chris Farrell started against Scotland and Italy but couldn't impose himself on those games, while Connacht's Tom Farrell was in the squad throughout but didn't get a look-in despite his superb provincial form.

A strong finish to the season from Chris Farrell can keep him in Schmidt's thoughts, while Addison is another contender whose versatility and speed will greatly interest Schmidt. He can offer creativity from centre or full-back.

Cave was the surprise package four years ago and this is one position where the coach may look to compromise for greater depth elsewhere.

HALF-BACK

Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray remain the pre-eminent pairing despite their worrying form. World-class players, they have time now to rebuild their confidence and finish the provincial season on a high. The question for Schmidt is who joins them in Japan.

Joey Carbery is a cert and his history of playing scrum-half could play a part in the coach's selections elsewhere.

In 2015, he brought three out-halves and two scrum-halves and Jack Carty has put himself in with a shout. His ability to come on and affect the game was impressive in Cardiff. Ross Byrne has work to do.

John Cooney's ability to cover both No's 9 and 10 is another factor. The Ulster star covered Murray for the first four games and did well, while Kieran Marmion appears to remain the de facto back-up.

Luke McGrath might have something to say about that and Jamison Gibson-Park could come into the equation.

FRONT-ROW

A large contingent of large men will make their way to Japan, but if Schmidt limits his numbers to eight there will be some fierce competition.

Take it as read that Rory Best will lead the squad, with Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong alongside him.

The two spots for alternative hookers will be contested by Seán Cronin, Niall Scannell and Rob Herring who replaced the dropped Cronin in the squad but didn't feature. Scannell looks to be ahead and has a big opportunity to impress for Munster, while Cronin is in the same boat for Leinster. Herring is Best's back-up at Ulster. Whether that matters in the autumn, we just don't know.

What we do know is that Jack McGrath has a major job on his hands to recover his place.

John Ryan, Finlay Bealham and Andrew Porter are all converted looseheads, so it looks more likely that Schmidt will take three tightheads and two No 1s and, with Dave Kilcoyne flying after impressing on every outing this spring, the Leinster prop needs to impress.

His opportunities will be limited at Leinster where Ed Byrne has edged ahead of him in certain games.

Ulster's Eric O'Sullivan is waiting in the wings as a potential bolter.

ENGINE ROOM

Injury forced Schmidt to use six second-rows during this tournament and it appears likely that two of those will miss out on selection.

Devin Toner's stock has risen once again in his absence, while James Ryan was Ireland's player of the tournament. Iain Henderson was excellent when fit.

So, it looks like that trio plus one with Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane and Tadhg Beirne in the frame. Add in Jean Kleyn, who will qualify to play for Ireland in September, and there's another option.

All three offer different things, but with Ryan and Henderson offering dynamism there is potential that he will plump for Roux's size and set-piece prowess over the more exciting rivals. Kleyn is playing catch-up.

Still, Beirne's breakdown offering and potential coverage at blindside must be appealing to the coach, while Dillane did well when called upon.

THE BACK-ROW

The loose forwards had a difficult time in this Six Nations and a number of big names have work to do.

Seán O'Brien's move to London Irish is timed so he can have a swansong in Japan, but he is playing catch-up after a disappointing campaign.

Dan Leavy is certain to come back if he can prove his fitness and Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy are trusted by Schmidt. It is hard to see him bringing three opensides, although Leavy, O'Brien and Murphy can shift positions.

Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander are guaranteed their place, while Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan can bring something different to the equation if they can impress for Leinster.

Vincent Hogan

1. Which player or players have played their way out of Ireland's RWC squad?

You'd have to be worried for Sean O'Brien now, first man whipped off during that Cardiff horror show and maybe just feeling the brutal march of time. It seems to me that Sean Cronin might have his work cut out too.

2. Who has played their way into the World Cup plans?

I have to say that Dan Leavy's absence for the entirety of the Six Nations has elevated his currency substantially. Ireland seemed to lack real back-row dynamism and, fitness permitting, Leavy looks a certain starter in Japan now.

3. What is the one change you would like Joe Schmidt to make between now and Japan?

I'd like him to reconsider the exclusion of players not playing at home under the centralized contract structure. Simon Zebo didn't cover himself in glory with a silly tweet immediately after the Cardiff defeat, but his flair would be a potentially potent weapon in the Far East.

4. Is Rory Best still the man to lead Ireland in Japan (if not, who else)?

Well, he either goes to Japan as captain and first-choice hooker or he doesn't go at all. Rory's not going to provide impact off the bench. I think he has probably just about earned the right to keep that arm-band.

5. Name your 31-man squad for Japan

R Kearney, A Conway, J Larmour, A Byrne, S Zebo, K Earls, J Stockdale, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, C Farrell, J Sexton, J Carbery, C Murray, K Marmion; R Best, N Scannell, C Healy, J McGrath, A Porter, T Furlong, D Toner, James Ryan, I Henderson, Q Roux, T Beirne, P O'Mahony, D Leavy, J Conan, CJ Stander, J van der Flier, J Murphy.

Alan Quinlan

1. Which player or players have played their way out of Ireland's RWC squad?

I don't think anyone is out of contention yet with six months to go but a number of players - such as Rory Best, Seán O'Brien, Seán Cronin, Jacob Stockdale and Jack McGrath - are under a lot more pressure now than they were before the Six Nations started.

2. Who has played their way into the World Cup plans?

For someone who missed out on the initial Six Nations squad, Ultan Dillane put his hand up against Italy. We didn't see a lot of Jack Carty but the campaign will have done him good, and the same goes for John Cooney. Dave Kilcoyne showed well too when called upon.

3. What is the one change you would like Joe Schmidt to make between now and Japan?

I'd like to see him add variety to Ireland's kicking tactics - using more players to keep the opposition guessing and to kick for territory more often instead of repeatedly trying to create aerial contests.

4. Is Rory Best still the man to lead Ireland in Japan (if not, who else)?

I'm not sure, and he shouldn't be sure either. It has to be up for debate and is dependent on how he plays between now and the end of the season. He has become more vulnerable after the Six Nations and knows he will have to earn the No 2 shirt he has worn for so long. Next in line to lead the team are the likes of Peter O'Mahony, James Ryan, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton.

5. Name your 31-man squad for Japan

Kearney, Larmour, Earls, Stockdale, Conway, Ringrose, Aki, Henshaw, Farrell, Sexton, Carbery, Murray, Marmion, Cooney, Best, Cronin, Scannell, Healy, Kilcoyne, Furlong, Porter, John Ryan, James Ryan, Toner, Henderson, Kleyn, Beirne, O'Mahony, Leavy, Stander, Conan.

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

1. Which player or players have played their way out of Ireland's RWC squad?

A free autumn must have flashed through Sean O'Brien's mind as he walked off the pitch in Cardiff. He needs a big business end of the season. Sean Cronin must be stumped with his axing - that kind of treatment is not good for team morale.

2. Who has played their way into the World Cup plans?

Jack Conan had a good few weeks. Jack Carty edged his way into the number three out-half spot ahead of Ross Byrne. John Cooney was solid but didn't get a lot of game-time.

3. What is the one change you would like Joe Schmidt to make between now and Japan?

One change is to understand Ireland have to change some things. The players' frustration seemed to reveal it wasn't their game-plan in Cardiff. They've trusted in Joe, now Joe needs to trust in his players in how they play with more freedom, more offloads, less fear.

4. Is Rory Best still the man to lead Ireland in Japan (if not, who else)?

Yes. Best is one of the best Irish captains of all time in terms of how he deals with referees. But being captain and being benched should not be mutually exclusive. Captain responsibility suits Peter O'Mahony.

5. Name your 31-man squad for Japan

Kearney, Earls, Stockdale, Larmour, Conway, Henshaw, Ringrose, Aki, Murray, Marmion, Cooney, Sexton, Carbery, Carty; Best (capt), Cronin, Scannell, Furlong, Porter, Healy, Kilcoyne, John Ryan, James Ryan, Toner, Henderson, Beirne, O'Mahony, O'Brien, Leavy, Stander, Murphy.

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

1. Which player or players have played their way out of Ireland's RWC squad?

Seán O'Brien and Sean Cronin have a lot of work to do and Jack McGrath is in real danger.

2. Who has played their way into the World Cup plans?

John Cooney did enough to suggest he can go as a third scrum-half and Dave Kilcoyne edged ahead of McGrath.

3. What is the one change you would like Joe Schmidt to make between now and Japan?

Find a way of improving Ireland's unstructured play to add more unpredictability to the attack when the first-phase effort doesn't succeed.

4. Is Rory Best still the man to lead Ireland in Japan (if not, who else)?

At this stage it's too late to change course, but if Niall Scannell is playing better, then Peter O'Mahony should lead the team.

5. Name your 31-man squad for Japan

R Kearney, S Zebo, J Larmour, K Earls, J Stockdale, R Henshaw, B Aki, G Ringrose, J Sexton, J Carbery, K Marmion, J Cooney, C Murray; N Scannell, S Cronin, R Best, C Healy, D Kilcoyne, T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan, James Ryan, T Beirne, D Toner, I Henderson, P O'Mahony, R Ruddock, D Leavy, S O'Brien, J Conan, CJ Stander.

David Kelly

1. Which player or players have played their way out of Ireland's RWC squad?

You would hope with the much-vaunted squad depth - more than 50 players have been name-checked in the last year - that those sweating on their Japan place stretches well into double figures. In reality, most of those already touted will make it but there is always one high-profile casualty and, on current form and evidence, Sean O'Brien is most at risk.

2. Who has played their way into the World Cup plans?

Potentially somebody Schmidt hasn't even seen enough of, namely Jean Kleyn, who might challenge the starting locks against Italy if his involvement can be accelerated; so too Will Addison, whose injury prevented his utility status being deployed.

3. What is the one change you would like Joe Schmidt to make between now and Japan?

In Joe, the Irish supporters trust. If it is true, and events seem to have proved it, that the top six in the world can out-flank the tactics that conquered all in 2018, his task before the summer is to engineer an alternative game-plan if his side's attempts to dominate possession are stymied.

4. Is Rory Best still the man to lead Ireland in Japan (if not, who else)?

The captaincy is not a primary fault-line in Ireland's struggles; if it were, Schmidt would have changed tack before now and, as his predecessor discovered, to change course suddenly would reveal a weakness and prove more unsettling than not. That doesn't mean Best remains an automatic first-choice, however, if his form, like other senior players, doesn't deserve it.

5. Name your 31-man squad for Japan

Kearney, Larmour, Stockdale, Earls, Addison, Aki, Ringrose, Henshaw, Sexton, Carbery, Murray, Marmion, McGrath; Best (capt), Scannell, Cronin, Healy, McGrath, Furlong, Porter, John Ryan, Henderson, Beirne, James Ryan, Toner, O'Mahony, Stander, Van der Flier, Leavy, O'Brien, Conan.

Cian Tracey

1. Which player or players have played their way out of Ireland's RWC squad?

Sean O'Brien needs a big finish to the season with Leinster because he didn't show anything like his best form throughout the Six Nations. He is certainly capable of delivering it.

2. Who has played their way into the World Cup plans?

Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan's pushes to be the replacement props were enhanced, while Jack Carty and John Cooney also made the most of their limited opportunities.

3. What is the one change you would like Joe Schmidt to make between now and Japan?

Allow the players a bit more freedom to express themselves while playing what they see in front of them and not always relying on a rigid and structured game-plan.

4. Is Rory Best still the man to lead Ireland in Japan (if not, who else)?

Yes. Six months out from the World Cup, this is not the time for such a drastic change. James Ryan's time will come, but Best must be helped out more by those around him.

5. Name your 31-man squad for Japan:

Kearney, Conway, Earls, Stockdale, Larmour, Henshaw, Aki, Ringrose, Farrell, Sexton, Murray, Cooney, Marmion; Carbery, Best (capt), Cronin, Scannell, Healy, Kilcoyne, Furlong, John Ryan, Porter, James Ryan, Toner, Henderson, Beirne, O'Mahony, Leavy, Van der Flier, O'Brien, Stander.

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