Schmidt picks from a wealth of locks and has the ultimate weapon out wide ahead of Japan

Paul Eddison
01 August 2019

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Ireland will begin their World Cup warm-ups against Italy next weekend and when they do we should get a clearer idea of Joe Schmidt’s plans for Japan.

For Guinness PRO14 fans, there is plenty to ponder over who will make the cut and what impact they will have in a couple of months’ time.

Next in our series are Ireland, 2018 Grand Slam champions and looking to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time.

SQUAD BREAKDOWN

Schmidt is as meticulous as they come so when he selects a squad for the Rugby World Cup you can guarantee that nothing has been left down to chance.

While Ireland have not enjoyed quite the same success in 2019 as they did in 2018, Schmidt still has huge depth to call on and a largely fit squad, albeit without a couple of key players in the back row.

The injury-enforced absences of Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien will certainly hurt, although they may not have an impact on how Schmidt puts together his squad.

Four years ago, Schmidt made the rather bold call of initially selecting just two scrum-halves, albeit Isaac Boss later joined the squad as an injury replacement for Jared Payne.

A repeat this year would be surprising, although predicting what the inscrutable Schmidt will do is not easy.

Schmidt previously went for five props, and given Andrew Porter’s ability to play both sides, that seems to be an option at his disposal once again.

The other advantage Schmidt has is the number of players comfortable in multiple positions. Whether it is Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne in the pack, or Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw and Jordan Larmour in the backs, Schmidt has the players needed to fill out a 31-man squad which covers all the bases.

KEY MAN

It would be easy to focus on Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton, who will of course have a huge influence on how far Ireland will go in Japan.

However since the start of 2018, only four man have scored ten or more tries in international rugby, and one of them is Jacob Stockdale, with ten in 15 Tests.

To put it into the context, over the last 18 months the next most tries by an Irishman is four (the quartet of Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Larmour and Murray).

While he is capable of playing full-back, as he did late in the season for Ulster, Stockdale has played exclusively on the wing for Ireland, and notably has three tries in two appearances against future World Cup opponents Scotland.

The archetypal Schmidt winger, combining an imposing physique with raw pace and a nose for the try-line, Stockdale will be the biggest weapon Ireland have at their disposal.

And for what it’s worth, the top try-scorer at every World Cup has been a winger. The only exception is Mils Muliaina in 2003, and even he scored four of his tries on the wing against Canada.

CLUB PARTNERSHIP

Between Henshaw’s versatility and the form of Bundee Aki ever since he announced himself on the Test stage, there is no guarantee that Leinster duo Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be the first-choice pairing in the midfield.

Still, the way they have performed for the Guinness PRO14 champions since Henshaw arrived from Connacht back in 2016, gives Schmidt a very experienced pairing to work with.

While Henshaw is comfortable at both inside and outside centre, and even got the nod at full-back in the Guinness Six Nations opener against England this year, it is arguably in the No.12 jersey that he has looked at his best.

He is far more than just a ball-carrying option, but his size means he can fulfil that role when required.

And with the slick feet and the clever support lines of Ringrose outside him, the pair have thrived together.

Comparing Ringrose to his predecessor in the No.13 jersey for Blackrock College, Leinster and Ireland would be unfair.

No one will ever replace Brian O’Driscoll, but Ringrose has shown a similar ability to make the step up at every level he has played. Ahead of a first World Cup campaign, there is no reason to believe that he will not do the same again.

WILD CARD

With Schmidt it is rare for any player to come from nowhere to make an impact, such is the planning that takes place.

Looking at the wider squad that has been named, however, one man who could yet turn some heads is Mike Haley.

The Munster full-back, who joined from Sale last summer, made the No.15 jersey his own at Thomond Park.

While former Sale teammate Will Addison has already made the step up to Test level, Haley is as yet uncapped.

That will likely change during the World Cup warm-ups, and in a position where Rob Kearney, Larmour and Henshaw all started during the Six Nations, it is hard to predict exactly who Schmidt will go for as his first choice full-back.

Against the experience of Kearney and the game-changing ability of Larmour, Haley is very much a long shot.

But after imposing himself in a single season at Munster, he has every chance to stake a claim for a place in the final 31.

KEY BATTLE

Aside from Haley, the only other uncapped player in Ireland’s initial 44-man squad was Munster’s Jean Kleyn, but he faces a tough task to get into the final 31.

Four years ago Schmidt selected four locks, and ahead of Japan has Leinster duo James Ryan and Devin Toner, Kleyn and his Munster colleague Tadhg Beirne, Ulster’s Iain Henderson and Connacht’s Ultan Dillane all in contention.

The fact that both Beirne and Henderson are very comfortable in the back row means that Schmidt could be tempted to take one fewer back-rower to accommodate an extra lock, but even so, there will be at least one and possibly two very good players who do not make the cut.

While Toner and Ryan have been first choice when fit in recent times, Beirne continues to hammer at the door with his domestic performances.

No one managed more than his nine lineout steals in the Guinness PRO14 last season, and while he did not match his ridiculous 37 turnovers from the previous season, he chipped in with 16 more in his first campaign with Munster, comfortably the most of any lock in the entire league.

Beirne’s versatility will stand him in good stead – he can play blindside or even No.8 at a push, while Henderson has racked up 44 caps over a seven-year international career and toured with the Lions in 2017.

That could leave Dillane and Kleyn fighting for one spot, although it would take a brave man to second-guess Schmidt’s plans.

Whatever happens, the departing New Zealander has huge depth to work with and quality in every position.

Less than two months from that opener against Scotland, the question is, can Schmidt’s side be the most successful Ireland side ever at a World Cup?

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