Ireland’s World Cup squad has experienced some trimming in recent weeks as the original squad of 45 has been reduced to 40.
Of course, only 31 players can travel to Japan for the Rugby World Cup and Ireland’s final three warm-up games against England, Wales and Wales again will provide the testing ground for those who are in a battle to make the final squad.
In truth, choosing about 80 per cent of the 31-man squad is straightforward with the makeup of players in the front-row and halfbacks almost certain at this stage.
However, coming to a conclusion on those in the second-row/back-row and the centre/back-three is a lot more difficult due to the level of depth which Schmidt has at his disposal in those positions, in addition to the versatility that some players possess.
Here we will take a look at where Schmidt will likely have some headaches when it comes to the backs selection over the next few weeks. Don’t forget to check back on our previous article on the difficulties facing Schmidt with his selection of the forwards.
This is relatively straightforward.
Conor Murray, as Ireland’s starting out-half, is guaranteed to travel and with John Cooney being released from the squad last week, it indicates Schmidt will take just two nines to Japan as he did at the 2015 World Cup.
That means the final spot is between Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath.
McGrath started against Italy and performed well but Marmion, when fit, has generally been Schmidt’s number two.
The Connacht scrum-half started the famous win over the All Blacks last November while Schmidt often praises the 27-year-old’s versatility and work ethic – most notably the time he played 40 minutes on the wing against Australia which included a huge tackle on David Pocock which forced the famous flanker into a forward pass.
Marmion replaced McGrath in the second half against Italy and although Schmidt will likely see more of these two players in the final three warm-up games, Marmion currently has the edge.
Predicted Final Scrum-Half Selection; Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion.
Carbery’s ankle injury means he will not take part in the remainder of the warm-up games but it looks like he will travel regardless.
The Munster out-half was superb against Italy before his match was prematurely ended. He outlined his wide array of skills and reaffirmed his importance to this Irish team.
With Sexton guaranteed to travel and with Carbery offering a back-up scrum-half option, that leaves one spot available between Jack Carty and Ross Byrne.
Carty replaced Carbery in the second half against Italy but he didn’t have the same impact that he did during the Six Nations.
Byrne will no doubt get an opportunity in the coming weeks to prove himself but as it stands, Carty is in the driving seat. However, the gap between the two looks a lot smaller than it was at the beginning of the summer.
Predicted Final Out-Half Selection; Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty.
Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose are almost all guaranteed to travel due to the fact they have been the backbone of Ireland’s midfield for the last two seasons.
Ultimately, that leaves one spot available and that’s between Chris Farrell and Will Addison.
From a versatility point of view, Addison’s ability to play in the centre and the back-three is almost impossible to ignore but he missed the entire second half of last season which could count against him.
Farrell, however, was one of Ireland’s best players in their win over Italy and he proved to Schmidt that he can also excel at inside centre, having played most of his games for Munster and Ireland in the outside channel.
The Munster centre offers something different to any other Ireland back. He’s a large physical specimen who attracts more than one defender which creates space elsewhere. He also has soft hands for a big man with his ability to produce an offload and pass under pressure a huge asset. This was highlighted in his super-quick pull-back pass for Joey Carbery in Ireland’s opening try against Conor O’Shea’s side.
He’s simply too good to leave out of the final squad.
Predicted Final Centre Selection; Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Chris Farrell.
If fit, Ireland’s back three for their opening game of the World Cup against Scotland will be Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale and Rob Kearney.
Jordan Larmour has often been Ireland’s 23rd man when the aforementioned trio have started games and his ability to cover fullback and wing will see him travel to Japan.
That leaves one final spot and Andrew Conway has his hand on the jersey after his man-of-the-match performance against Italy 10 days ago.
Conway’s ability in the air was evident for all to see as he consistently won the ball back for Ireland.
Ireland will be looking to kick more in attack for the upcoming World Cup as they look to vary their attacking structures and Conway proved that he can be the perfect foil for contestable kicks.
Predicted Final Back-Three Selection; Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway.
In addition to our previous article on the difficulties facing Schmidt with his forwards selection, we now have our predicted backs selection for the 2019 Rugby World Cup which you can find below.
Predicted Ireland Backs Selection For World Cup Squad