Wednesday 24 July 2019

World Cup starts now for Joe's chosen ones

Head coach praises his panel of 'quality contributors' after making tough decisions

Joe Schmidt officially confirmed his World Cup squad yesterday
Joe Schmidt officially confirmed his World Cup squad yesterday
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For six hours on Sunday, Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff sat around a table and thrashed out their World Cup squad.

Names were pencilled in and then erased as he fine-tuned his list of 31 men for the biggest challenge of his stellar coaching career to date.

When the meeting ended at 5pm, the New Zealander began picking up the phone to inform the 14 players who hadn't made it of his decision with the last call finishing almost five hours later.

At around 10.15, an email went out to the squad members who had made the cut, asking them to assemble at Carton House on Monday to prepare for the final warm-up match against England on Saturday.

Schmidt yesterday admitted that selecting the squad and having those conversations had taken him out of his comfort zone, but he is now back where he is best - coaching the team and preparing for the biggest two months of his and his players' career to date.

As the dust settled and he explained his key decisions alongside his assistants Les Kiss and Simon Easterby, he was asked what he liked about his squad and his enthusiasm told its own tale.

"I like the fact that they're all quality contributors," he said.

"I like the fact that I do think we can pose a threat to opposition teams across the board.

"We can play with width, we can play narrow if the conditions determine that we need to. I think we can mix up our game sufficiently with the personnel we've got and hopefully we'll get the opportunity to do all of that.

"I like the fact that we've got some really good experience and we've got some really good eagerness of youth and lesser experience.

Experience

"I like the mix of experience the players bring from the different provinces and from different experiences.

"I know Nathan White's only played in two Test matches, but he has propped a number of times against any of the three southern hemisphere looseheads that get put out.

"He's less au fait with Argentina because they weren't part of the Super Rugby environment when he was playing it. On the other hand, to see players like Robbie Henshaw coming through is exciting.

"Even in the second-row, I know players must feel a bit of pressure. Donnacha Ryan is an incredibly astute player, who is coming back into some of his best physical condition.

"Iain Henderson, again, reminded us of the athlete he is and Dev Toner with his improvements in the last two years has contributed massively.

"While the skipper (Paul O'Connell) may still be untouchable in that group, I'm sure he doesn't feel like that sometimes when he sees what the other guys are delivering.

"The competitiveness within the squad is also very good.

"It was hard enough to leave some of the back-three players out. Now that you've got the back-three players, which ones do you go with? That competitiveness, hopefully, will drive the squad."

After back-to-back Six Nations wins and the victories over Australia and South Africa last autumn, Ireland are second on the world rankings table and have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming World Cup.

Schmidt wasn't getting carried away when he expressed his "hope" that a first trip to the semi-finals is within Ireland's range, but if they get to that stage they'll be in bonus territory and all bets are off.

As for the squad itself, the coach confirmed that Tadhg Furlong would cover loosehead despite not having played there as a professional, while Ian Madigan will be third-choice scrum-half.

That idea was first floated to the versatile Leinster man towards the end of last season and had been at the back of the coach's mind, but as he weighed up his midfield options, he decided that an additional centre would be worth the risk.

That brought Darren Cave into the equation and the coach used the term "manufactured" to describe his current first-choice centre pairing.

Although Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne remain the men in possession, the attraction of having an out-and-out centre who can cover both numbers 12 and 13 and provide strong opposition in training was too good to turn down.

Schmidt referenced Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Felix Jones, Marty Moore, Michael Bent and Stephen Archer as among those who are on stand-by, while Munster's Dave Kilcoyne must also be in consideration given he remained at Carton House this week and may yet feature against England this Saturday if the coach chooses to keep Cian Healy on ice.

Last week, the former Leinster supremo said the World Cup begins when the squad is announced and the first clash with England is seen as an addendum to the campaign.

He hadn't seen England's side before holding his squad announcement press conference, but Stuart Lancaster's selection seemed to reinforce the notion that the Twickenham clash will be the real deal.

A win over an apparently full-strength England in London for the first time in five years would be the perfect send-off for this Ireland side and Schmidt is likely to match that selection by picking as close to full strength as he can.

Describing the World Cup as the "pinnacle" of his players' careers, the coach said he could feel the step-up in intensity as he took them through their paces in Maynooth yesterday.

"Training today, it's what I enjoy most and seeing them move and the enthusiasm; you feel like you have got a good group, we have got a lot of confidence in the group and we want them to demonstrate that confidence going out against England," he said.

"That is a really tough last lead-in game. I'm not sure how anyone can ever call a match against England a warm-up. I don't think it computes with our guys and their guys are very similar."

Irish Independent

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