Ireland could be ready to hand inexperienced fly-halves Jack Carty and Ross Byrne their chances to capitalise on Joey Carbery’s injury with valuable game time in the toughest circumstances against England at Twickenham this Saturday.
Munster fly-half Carbery came into Ireland’s World Cup pre-season campaign as the clear choice to deputise for Johnny Sexton at fly-half and impressed in the role starting against Italy in the opening Test of the summer on August 10, only to suffer a hamstring injury that will keep him out for between four to six weeks.
That rules Carbery out for the remainder of Ireland’s summer warm-up Tests, against the English this weekend, then twice against Wales, meaning his first chance to play again would be in the opening game of the pool campaign against Scotland in Yokohama on September 22.
That clearly opens the door for Carty or Byrne, or indeed both to stake a claim to one of only five possible half-back places Ireland will make available, in their final 31-man World Cup squad to finalised on September 2.
Ireland skills coach Richie Murphy suggested today following training at the Quinta do Lago Campus on Portugal’s Algarve that head coach Joe Schmidt will take 14 backs to Japan with five of those either fly-halves or scrum-halves.
With Ulster number nine John Cooney released from the training squad last week before the group, including Carbery, departed for Portugal, Ireland have six nines and 10s fit and available for the remaining games with first-choice half-back Conor Murray joined by Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath and Sexton backed up by Carty and Byrne.
World Rugby Player of the Year for 2018 Sexton sat out training today alongside centre Robbie Henshaw and wing Keith Earls, Murphy citing “ a bit of soreness” to explain their absences.
"There's no real fears about them, it's just about managing them and getting their work-load right for possible involvement this week and, if not, the following week,” Murphy said.
"It's a case of what we need out of these games, they're big Test matches in their own right, but we are building to something that is a bigger picture and it's about getting the mix and the balance right of getting the proper amount of work into these guys and game-time is going to be a key aspect over the next three weeks.
"Joey (Carbery) is doing really, really well. Obviously, the time-frame around his injury has been well stated. He's recovering really well, he's well into his recovery programme and, talking to him, he feels good and confident.
"He's exactly where the medics would expect him to be at the moment.
"He's definitely trying to get back for that first Scotland game, but it's a case of how we manage that and also manage the squad because although he is very much online for that time-frame, we also have to have contingency plans in place so we'll look at them through the next few weeks and get game-time for certain people."
That last point is what will put both Carty and Byrne on red alert to nail down their spots as the Irish management considers the risk of taking an undercooked Carbery to the World Cup.
"We have left that quite open at the moment and we have conversations in and around the make-up of the squad,” Murphy said.
"I've heard a lot of conversations around whether to bring three No 9s or three No 10s and how that breaks down. We'll make an assessment a little bit closer, we're not making assessments at the moment.
"We're just watching him, keeping a very close eye on how he's progressing. At this moment, we're very happy with where he's at but whether there's a spot for him or not will depend on other players.
"Opportunities will go to the likes of Jack and Ross as well as Johnny getting game-time over the next few weeks."