So now the real work begins. The debates over squad selection are over, at least inside the Irish camp, and now comes the business end of Joe Schmidt’s preparations for Japan and the 2019 World Cup.
Just 19 days and one final preparatory game, against Wales in Dublin this Saturday, for the Ireland head coach to fine-tune his chosen 31 players ahead of the Pool A campaign, which starts on Sunday, September 22 against Scotland in Yokohama’sInternationalStadium, Schmidt will be relieved to return to the training ground this week after negotiating the least pleasurable part of his role, telling the nine players in the training squad they were not on the plane, though time and injury tolls may see them make it big in Japan eventually before the tournament is over.
Yet while the boss gets back to what he enjoys most, coaching, he will be acutely aware he is leaving behind him a trail of disappointment as that group of omitted players return crestfallen to their provinces to pick up the pieces of their pre-season.
None more so than Devin Toner, the 6ft 10ins lock who for so long was one of Schmidt’s most loyal lieutenants and certainly the most capped player of the incumbent’s six-and-a-half-year tenure with Ireland.
The lock earned 60 of his 67 Test caps on Schmidt’s watch from a possible 71 matches between November 2013 and last Saturday but by yesterday afternoon he had been moved along with the other lost boys to the “Past Players” section of the IRFU’s website.
Schmidt instead has placed his faith in a starting second row of Iain Henderson and James Ryan while the back-up locks will be Tadhg Beirne and the Test rookie Jean Kleyn. Kleyn qualified for Ireland onAugust 8 after the permitted three years of residency having moved from South Africa to Munster in 2016, and made his debut two days later against Italy.
Framing it as a Kleyn for Toner selection, World Rugby vice-president AugustinPichot, one of the prime movers behind the governing body’s decision to extend the residency qualification from three to five years, starting from next year, took to social media yesterday to express his sympathy for Toner.
Pichot’s argument did not get off to a strong start when he suggested “David Toner” had been the victim but on the second tweet the former Argentina scrum-half wrote: “If I was Devin Toner... I will be asking WR (World Rugby) for answers. I feel sorry for him; nothing against for who was properly selected for the RWC19 by the way. But feel that way.”
Of course, no Schmidt selection is so straightforward as a choice between A and B and the head coach has seemingly sacrificed lineout leadership experience for the grunt of tighthead scrummager Kleyn, while trusting Henderson and the other experienced set-piece operators around him, to steer a ship that returned to form in Wales last Saturday, a week after it suffered a meltdown in Twickenham.
So too, the decision to send Will Addison back up the M1 to Belfast rather than to Japan. Apparently possessing that most valuable possession for Schmidt, versatility,Addison’s lack of game time since Christmas following back surgery in the spring and a pre-season “calf niggle” has put paid to his hopes of a World Cup debut despite a promising first outing at full-back in the weekend win over the Welsh.
Instead, it was outside centre Garry Ringrose’s turn as an auxiliary wing with the ability to cover fly-half at the Principality Stadium that caught Schmidt’s eye, allowing him to take out-and-out midfielder Chris Farrell as one of his four centres and freeing up back-three slots for wing/full-backs Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour.
Similar hard calls were made throughout the squad, Dave Kilcoyne in at loosehead prop, 2017 British & Irish Lion Jack McGrath out; Rhys Ruddock preferred to Jordi Murphy in the back row stocks, Luke McGrath as the second scrum-half, not Kieran Marmion; Jack Carty instead of Ross Byrne as the third fly-half.
Players drop out and those 31 that remain now knuckle down. Getting onto the squad was only the first hurdle. Now comes a full-blooded send-off against Wales in Dublin and onto the Land of the Rising Sun for the Scots, hosts Japan, Russia and Samoa in short order, with a quarter-final against either New Zealand or South Africa the initial ambition.
“I think that’s always the challenge but there’s an excitement in that,” Schmidt said yesterday. “There will be some players who are incredibly relieved as well as some players who are very disappointed. We can talk about a number of them. I thought Will Addison was really good on Saturday. Unfortunately for Will it’s all just come a little bit too late. He picked up a little bit of a calf niggle, after having come back and not playing the back end of the season.
“He hadn’t had that much time with us but he fits in so well and plays so well. I thought Dave Kearney had a good second half. Those sort of guys, Jordi Murphy he got on the ball really well twice. Once, there was quite a big side cleanout, otherwise he would have got it. Those guys, there’s not much between this group and the guys who aren’t there so, if we lose someone, at least we feel we’ve got someone who can step in and do a really good job.
“Those guys who now have the responsibility and opportunity to go to a Rugby World Cup, I am sure they are going to look to grasp it with both hands and try to kick onto another level now.”
Forwards (17): R Best (Banbridge/Ulster) - CAPTAIN, T Beirne (Lansdowne/Munster), J Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster), S Cronin (St Mary’s College/Leinster), T Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), C Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), D Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster), I Henderson (Queens University/Ulster), J Kleyn (Munster), P O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), A Porter (UCD/Leinster), R Ruddock (St Mary’s College/Leinster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster), N Scannell (Dolphin/Munster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster), J van der Flier (UCD/Leinster).
Backs (14): B Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), J Carbery (Clontarf/Munster), J Carty (Buccaneers/Connacht), A Conway (Garryowen/Munster), K Earls (Young Munster/Munster), C Farrell (Young Munster/Munster), R Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster), R Kearney (UCD/Leinster), J Larmour (St Mary’s College/Leinster), L McGrath (UCD/Leinster), C Murray (Garryowen/Munster), G Ringrose (UCD/Leinster), J Sexton (St Marys College/Leinster), J Stockdale (Lurgan/Ulster).