Joe Schmidt raised a few eyebrows when he named 42 players in his Ireland squad for the upcoming November internationals against Italy, Argentina, New Zealand and the USA.
This time last year, Schmidt named 38 men in his squad for the 2017 November series but with the World Cup now less than 12 months away, it’s clear that the head coach wants to run the rule over those on the periphery, especially with a Chicago date with Italy and a home clash with the USA on the horizon.
You can be sure that form, positional depth and minutes played by each Irish player this season came into Schmidt’s thinking when nailing his colours to the mast for Wednesday’s squad announcement.
With regards to minutes played, this season has been interesting in the sense that a lot of Irish international players played for their respective provinces much earlier in the season than we have seen in recent years.
Schmidt will explain this next week when he speaks to the media but every decision over the next 11 months will be made with the World Cup at the forefront and finally breaking the quarter-final barrier which the IRFU have set out as a goal in their recently published strategic plan.
With that in mind, we decided to take a closer look at the amount of rugby each squad member has played thus far this season and the significance if any, of those fresh or under-cooked bodies as they enter into four back-to-back Test matches.
Schmidt has included three looseheads and four tightheads among his squad selection; Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, John Ryan and Finlay Bealham.
The three players to have broken the 300-minute mark are Bealham, Kilcoyne and Healy. Out of the props selected, only Kilcoyne has played in every match this season with an average of 45 minutes per game.
Bealham has played in every game for Connacht this season except for last weekend’s loss away to Sale Sharks in the Challenge Cup.
Healy, meanwhile, has played in six out of eight games for Leinster so far this season, the two games he missed coming at the beginning of September; Healy has now played in Leinster’s last five consecutive matches.
Overall, Ireland are in rude health in the prop department. McGrath is probably in the least envious of positions as his season only started in the interprovincial clash with Munster at the Aviva Stadium. With little rugby under his belt, a battle-hardened Kilcoyne will have a big opportunity to stake a claim as deputy to Healy if he gets an opportunity against Italy.
If Ireland have any problems in a certain position then hooker may be it. Schmidt has chosen four hookers in his squad; Rory Best (captain), Sean Cronin, Rob Herring and Niall Scannell.
Only Cronin has been injury-free this season as the other three have had their campaigns hampered by ill-timed periods on the sidelines.
Cronin has played 356 minutes for Leinster this season and disregarding the first game of the season away to the Cardiff Blues, the Limerick man has been ever present in matchday squads since.
The drop-off from Cronin is stark as Herring, Rory Best and Scannell all come in around the 200 minute mark.
Many believe Scannell to be the player to truly challenge Best for his starting spot with his strength at scrum time and the lineout being qualities which Schmidt admires.
However, Scannell has only played three games this season, the two interprovincials and Munster’s first Champions Cup match against Exeter at Sandy Park. He has since injured an ankle in training and missed the home win over Gloucester.
Herring hasn’t played for Ulster since they took on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, missing Ulster’s last four fixtures. He has been named on the bench for Friday night’s clash with the Dragons as he makes his return from a toe injury. Schmidt will likely be a keen observer to see if he comes through unscathed.
Finally, there’s Best, who has missed the majority of the season with a hamstring injury but he returned in the loss against Connacht and played in their two recent Champions Cup ties.
It’s Best’s jersey to lose and at the moment, it’s advantage Best and Cronin going into November.
One of the many headaches for Schmidt is the second-row. The Ireland head coach has selected Tadhg Beirne, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Quinn Roux and James Ryan.
Each and every one of these players are in excellent form and they have all played a large amount of rugby this season.
Beirne leads the way on 472 minutes and he has played in every single game for Munster since he made his debut in Round 2 against the Glasgow Warriors.
Every other player has missed at least two games for their respective province; with Henderson and Ryan absent for head injuries at certain stages.
If Schmidt goes with form, then Tadhg Beirne must start for Ireland in November but he may also be keen on the excellent provincial partnership of Toner and Ryan
Ireland Loose Forwards
Easily the envy of world rugby, Ireland’s depth in the loose forward department is one of their greatest strengths. Schmidt has named (deep breathe) Peter O’Mahony, Jack Conan, Rhys Ruddock, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy.
Eight does not go into three so you can expect some pretty intense training at Carton House as these players attempt to shine brightest.
Three players are over the 400 minutes mark for their respective provinces; O’Mahony, Conan and Ruddock, followed by Stander on 385 and Van der Flier on 332.
For Murphy, O’Brien and Leavy, their campaigns have been stop-start. Murphy has missed a good chunk of the season after being absent for four consecutive games due to an ankle injury but he did return for their most recent Champions Cup ties.
O’Brien, who has 202 minutes under his belt, made his long-awaited return against Connacht at the Sportsground and he has since played in Leinster’s last three matches as he gets up to speed after a long period on the sidelines which stretched back to last season.
Then there is Leavy. The Leinster flanker was one of Ireland’s standout performers in the 2017/18 season but he currently has only 85 minutes under his belt after eight competitive fixtures.
His first game of the season against Edinburgh lasted only five minutes when he was removed for a HIA due to a strike from Pierre Schoeman. He then got 80 minutes in the win against Munster at the Aviva two weeks later but a calf problem has seen him absent for Leinster’s two Champions Cup games.
Interestingly, the players who have played the most minutes have been the most impressive as O’Mahony, Ruddock and Conan lead the way in both form and time on the pitch.
With no Conor Murray, the biggest question on Irish supporters’ lips is, who will start at nine against the All Blacks? Well, Schmidt has three quality players to choose from; John Cooney, Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath.
Marmion has often been Schmidt’s go-to guy to deputise for Murray but as you can see below, the Connacht half-back only has 206 minutes under his belt this season. An injury picked up in the first few minutes in the famous win against Ulster derailed his season and he has been absent since.
Marmion has been named to start for the western province in their Guinness PRO14 clash away to Ospreys this weekend and getting through this game could be crucial for his chances in November.
Elsewhere, Cooney and McGrath can barely be separated in the time on the pitch stakes. Cooney has been superb for Ulster and his individual performance from the tee helped his side to crucial victories at the beginning of the season.
McGrath has played a lot of rugby but there is a concern around his form with some uncharacteristic mistakes in recent games for Leinster. However, if Schmidt decided to opt for familiarity, the Leinster combination of McGrath-Sexton may be the way to go.
In terms of selection, this one is simple. Almost regardless of the minutes played, Johnny Sexton will start for Ireland in the biggest games. Between Sexton, Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne, the Leinster captain is in the middle with 356 minutes under his belt.
Carbery’s decision to move to Munster has already proven to be a good one, from both a provincial and national perspective.
Out of all the players named in Ireland’s squad, Carbery has played the third most amount of minutes than any other player [falling behind Stuart McCloskey (557) and Darren Sweetnam (551)].
Almost all of these minutes have come at out-half and his form for the southern province puts him ahead of Byrne in the Ireland pecking order.
For Byrne, he has seen his minutes dwindle this season after Sexton’s return to Leinster, with his time on the pitch mostly coming from a cameo role.
Ireland have included six centres in their squad for November; Stuart McCloskey, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Will Addison and Sammy Arnold.
Ireland’s likely centre partnership for Argentina and the All Blacks will be two of either Henshaw, Ringrose and Aki.
McCloskey, who has been in and out of Ireland squads under Schmidt, has played the most amount of rugby of any player in this Irish squad with 557 minutes to his name.
He is clearly a crucial player for Dan McFarland at Ulster and he will likely get an opportunity to impress against Italy.
In terms of the number of games missed for Ireland’s centres; McCloskey has missed one, Henshaw two, Ringrose and Aki three and Addison four.
If you were to choose Ireland’s starting back-three for the All Blacks, most would agree that it would be Rob Kearney at fullback with Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the wings.
If fit, this will likely be the trio but a concern of Schmidt’s will be the relative little rugby these players have played as you can see from the below chart.
Earls will hope to get a game under his belt this weekend as he recovers from a hamstring injury picked up during the warmup against the Exeter Chiefs. His first game for Munster this season was the recent thumping of Ulster at Thomond Park.
Stockdale only made his return for the visit of Connacht to Belfast but since that game, he has played in back-to-back Champions Cup ties.
With Kearney, the Louth man missed the loss against Toulouse but he is available for selection this weekend with most of his minutes thus far coming in the interprovincial matches and Leinster’s thumping win over Wasps.
Earls looks to be the most vulnerable of the above players and he will hope to prove his fitness against the Glasgow Warriors this weekend.
Ireland At A Glance:
- Stuart McCloskey has racked up the most minutes out of any player in the squad with 551.
- Out of the top 10 players with the most minutes this season, 50% are Munster players.
- Out of the top 10, 60% are backs and 40% are forwards.
- Dan Leavy has the least amount of minutes this season with 85.
- Out of the bottom 10 players with the least minutes played, 40% are from Leinster, 30% from Leinster, 20% from Ulster and 10% from Connacht.
- Out of the bottom 10, 80% are forwards and 20% are backs.
- All data used in this article was sourced from the websites of the respective provinces.
- Data is applied to senior competitive matches this season in the Guinness PRO14 (Rounds 1-6) and EPCR competiton (Rounds 1-2).