Breaking down Ireland’s World Cup squad: Schmidt says big is beautiful

Charlie Talbot-Smith
03 September 2019

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Ireland surprised everyone by naming their Rugby World Cup squad a full six days earlier than initially scheduled.

That was the first bombshell, and there were plenty more to follow when the list of 31 was named.

Gone were stalwarts like Devin Toner, Jack McGrath, Kieran Marmion and Jordi Murphy.

Joe Schmidt has opted to make some big calls in their bid to go beyond the quarter-finals for the first time ever:

LOCKING IN KLEYN

Fans of the Guinness PRO14, and in particular Munster, have long been aware of Jean Kleyn’s capabilities.

The lock, who qualified for Ireland on residency grounds only last month, has been catapulted onto the international level and leapfrogged Toner into the squad.

It is a big call to overlook one of Schmidt’s most loyal lieutenants in Toner – but perhaps with one eye on the fast-paced game style expected out in Japan, the slightly more athletic Kleyn has been given the nod.

Kleyn carries hard, hits rucks all day and packs down on the tighthead side, but what he cannot match Toner for is lineout nous.

That means that Iain Henderson, with help from the ever-impressive James Ryan, will be calling the lineout that struggled at Twickenham not even a fortnight ago.

It is a big call to make, but Schmidt has never shied away from those. Clearly big is better for this Ireland side, particularly after the punishing loss to England.

Kleyn will have to go some to break into the first choice XV, his role is probably to anchor the scrum for Samoa and Russia in the pool stages, but Toner’s omission is eye-catching.

Ireland’s world-beating 2018 form has slowed this last year, and the Leinster lock appears to have paid the price.

BACK ROW BALANCE

Elsewhere in the pack, the front row selections were less of a surprise.

Jack McGrath had already fallen behind Dave Kilcoyne on the loosehead and Andrew Porter’s versatility allowed for only five props.

Skipper Rory Best still has a fight to hold on to the No.2 jersey ahead of Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin but it is the back row where Schmidt is still searching for answers.

Jack Conan, Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne teamed up for that last win over Wales, but Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander are still waiting in the wings.

And then there is Rhys Ruddock, probably earmarked for a leadership role in those Samoa and Russia games, but preferred to Murphy and also keen to put his best foot forward.

The rise of Leinster No.8 Conan has muddied the waters for Schmidt of late, and while Beirne has not played back row for Munster yet, at Scarlets he tore up the Guinness PRO14 both at blindside and No.8.

His versatility might best suit him for a bench role, but the flexibility on offer in the back row – only Conan at No.8 and van der Flier at No.7 are specialists in their roles – gives Schmidt loads of options.

HALF-BACK BATTLE

Only 31 men in a squad means a head coach has to cut corners somewhere.

So at scrum-half Schmidt has opted for just Conor Murray and Luke McGrath.

McGrath’s selection ahead of Marmion is something of a surprise considering the Connacht man started wins over both New Zealand and England and has never lost when wearing Ireland’s No.9’s jersey.

Two No.9s leaves the squad somewhat exposed in case of a niggle – the likes of Jordan Larmour and maybe even Jack Carty might have to step in as bench cover.

But at fly-half Schmidt could not afford to take the same risks – considering fitness concerns have limited Joey Carbery and Jonathan Sexton to a combined 49 minutes so far in their three warm-up games.

That means Carty gets the nod ahead of Ross Byrne after some impressive showings both off the bench and then as a starter last week against Wales – which earned him the man of the match award.

FUNCTION OVER FLEXIBILITY

In the three-quarters, Schmidt has played it somewhat safer – resisting the temptation to include the versatility of Will Addison in favour of the heft of Munster’s Chris Farrell.

Farrell is one of four centres in the squad alongside Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.

But the latter it would appear will have to provide cover at 12, 13, wing and potentially even fly-half should injuries occur.

Jacob Stockdale was always going to be in alongside Rob Kearney and Keith Earls in what looks like Schmidt’s first choice back three.

Throw in Larmour and Andrew Conway and, despite the headline omissions and recent blips, you would have to say Ireland have a very strong squad heading to the Far East.

And with what looks like, on paper, a very navigable pool stage, optimism should be rife for a first trip beyond the last eight on the biggest stage of all.

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