Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Ireland's World Cup rising sons - who is on the plane, the likely lads and the long shots'
Opportunities to impress Joe Schmidt are limited as the Ireland coach surveys the form and whittles down his World Cup options ahead of selecting his 31-man squad for the big one in Japan. Here, we’ve highlighted the key players who are already assured of their seats on the plane if fit, the likely lads on the runway, and the long shots who need to take flight soon
Eight months next week, the plane carrying Ireland will make its way to Japan for the main event of 2019.
Joe Schmidt will be on board, as will his team of assistants and support staff and 31 players. As of now, places in that panel are up for grabs and the scramble to convince the head coach is well under way.
Much of the work has been done, but even for those who seem assured of their place there is work to be done in maintaining form and avoiding injury.
There is a reasonable cohort of leading players whose places are safe once they stay fit, while for the next batch it is almost certain that they will travel if they continue to hit their high standards.
But the squad contains a number of pressure points and it is certain that some very good players who have contributed hugely to Ireland's recent success will miss out.
Picking a squad of 31 is a delicate balancing act and Schmidt must find a way of covering every position adequately for a punishing schedule.
Ireland's pool games are front-loaded, meaning they have a six-day turnaround between their meetings with Scotland and Japan. Five days later, they face Russia, before finishing off against Samoa nine days later.
So, there will be plenty of rotation over the course of the three weeks.
In 2015, Schmidt used all of his 31 players. He selected 14 backs and 17 forwards; five back-three players, three centres and Keith Earls who covered both. He picked three out-halves and two scrum-halves and had Ian Madigan covering the No 9 slot.
Up front, he picked three hookers and five props with Tadhg Furlong covering both sides of the scrum; while there were four second-rows and five back-rows.
He will be mindful of the distances involved in calling up players as cover. In 2015, nowhere was more than an hour or two away by direct flight, but getting reserve players to Japan will be an altogether tougher challenge.
Schmidt will also be mindful of the condition of those left behind who won't have any competitive provincial games until October. In 2015, the late call-ups found it difficult to catch up on those who had been there all along.
He has capped 78 players since the last World Cup and even with a number of retirements from that playing pool, the former Leinster supremo has cast his net as wide as possible.
At least 10 players who featured in November will be left disappointed, with real competition for places in a number of positions forcing Schmidt into some very difficult decisions.
In his own mind, the New Zealander will have a firm idea the make-up of the bulk of the squad but he'll keep an open mind for a burst of form and some eye-catching performances.
He has name-checked a couple of uncapped players in his brief media dealings recently and, while it seems unlikely that we'll see a bolter at this point, the message is clear that the draw-bridge has not yet been pulled up.
Front-liners like Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney, James Ryan, Devin Toner and CJ Stander are certain of their places, while injured trio Iain Henderson, Seán O'Brien and Robbie Henshaw will definitely travel if they can get over their current injury issues.
Rory Best is almost certain to lead the travelling party with Schmidt sticking with him through November after an injury-hit few months and some patchy performances.
The captain turns 37 during the tournament and just needs to keep up his good form and stay injury-free to make it to Japan.
Along with him are a host of players who are valuable squad players with hopes of making the team like Jordan Larmour, Dan Leavy and Joey Carbery who will be confident of securing their places.
But beyond that contingent, there are few guarantees with a large number of players battling to get on to the plane.
As he balances his backline, Schmidt could value Will Addison's versatility above Andrew Conway's game-breaking ability or he may pick both and squeeze Chris Farrell out.
Schmidt has used Rory Scannell, Stuart McCloskey and Sammy Arnold in the midfield, while Darren Sweetnam and Adam Byrne have been involved as back-three options but they all would appear to need an injury to get in.
Like his Racing 92 team-mate Donnacha Ryan and Bristol's Madigan, Simon Zebo looks well out of the picture despite his excellent form in France.
The balance at half-back will be fascinating.
Will John Cooney's capacity to cover numbers 9 and 10 edge him ahead of a third out-half like Ross Byrne and a rival scrum-half like Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion to make the trip or will Schmidt look to Joey Carbery to provide scrum-half cover?
Whether it is two or three No 9s who travel, there will be a quality operator missing out, with McGrath, Marmion and Cooney battling to join Conor Murray on the plane.
Add in the fact that New Zealander Jamison Gibson-Park becomes eligible in time to for the warm-ups and Schmidt has another quality option.
The front-row is another area of huge competition with Seán Cronin, Rob Herring and Niall Scannell battling it out to join Best in the hooking ranks.
With Cian Healy and Jack McGrath almost certain to travel, Dave Kilcoyne could be squeezed out because all three of the potential tighthead back-ups to Tadhg Furlong - Finlay Bealham, Andrew Porter and John Ryan can play loosehead.
The second-row is another area of huge strength for the team ranked second in the world.
Ryan, Toner and Henderson are all almost certain of a place, while Tadhg Beirne's superb form and capacity to play at blindside should help him make the plane.
Schmidt is a fan of Quinn Roux, while his Connacht team-mates Ultan DIllane and Gavin Thornbury are contenders and Munster's Jean Kleyn qualifies during the warm-up games.
They will push the perceived top four all the way.
And then comes the back-row, where Schmidt will have to leave out at least a number of impressive performers.
If O'Brien can prove his fitness, he then must push his case to be selected ahead of Leavy or Josh van der Flier.
Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander are guaranteed a place right now, but Rhys Ruddock could miss out due to Jordi Murphy's versatility. Likewise, Jack Conan is in danger of missing the cut.
Picking five back-rows from the ranks available is arguably the toughest call of all.
Since the World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina in 2015, Schmidt has been focused on improving Ireland's game-plan and building depth.
The game-plan has evolved to a place where Ireland have risen to second in the world rankings and favourites for the Six Nations, while the quest for depth has created genuine competition in almost every department.
With so much rugby to be played between now and September, players are understandably loathe to focus on the World Cup right now but you can be sure that it is at the back of their minds throughout the campaign.
Ireland have never been in a better position to get beyond the quarter-final and have a real tilt at winning the William Webb Ellis trophy and every player wants to be on board when the time comes.
Schmidt will be thorough in his deliberations and ruthless with his decisions. Every game is an audition this season and the coach is always watching, whittling down the names in his head until he comes out with 31.
The window to impress is narrowing and the competition will be fierce.
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