Ireland’s deep backline resources for the forthcoming World Cup campaign have been underlined by the quality of the players Joe Schmidt has decided to leave at home.
Just as with the 17 forwards going to Japan following today’s squad announcement, the head coach made some bold calls in selecting the 14 backs in his squad.
Opting to take just two specialist scrum-halves made for perhaps the biggest call of all as Schmidt plumped for Leinster’s Luke McGrath over Connacht’s Kieran Marmion for the role of backing up first-choice number nine Conor Murray.
Marmion has figured prominently since the retirement of Eoin Reddan in 2016 and has started some big games in Murray’s absences through injury, helping to steer Ireland to significant wins over England in the 2017 Six Nations and a historic first home victory over New Zealand in November 2018.
Yet McGrath, with 13 Test caps compared to Marmion’s 27, got the nod for Japan on the back of an impressive season as a starting nine with his province and productive summer in Ireland camp.
“The two scrum-halves, that was incredibly tough,” Schmidt said.
“If you’re going to have a guy who is the quintessential team member, Kieran Marmion is someone you’d hold up as someone who has done some fantastic stuff for us. At scrum-half, but he’s so versatile too and such a good man to have in the environment too.
“That was such a tough decision, again it’s that balance of past performance. Conor Murray has been a world-leading scrum-half and Luke McGrath has been incredibly good this season. In competition with Kieran Marmion, that was an incredibly tough decision.”
Elsewhere in the back division, it was versatility across positions that earned selection, though probably the most versatile of them all, Will Addison, was cut from the final squad, a victim of lack of game time since a back injury during the Six Nations.
The beneficiaries were Chris Farrell, who has played inside and outside centre this summer, and wings Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour, both of whom can cover for first-choice full-back Rob Kearney. Schmidt also praised Garry Ringrose’s ability to play along the backline as well at centre alongside Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Farrell.
"Garry Ringrose played really well on the wing for us. We feel that he can cover the back three, he can play full-back as well. He's got such a good kicking game and we even had him on the bench at the weekend covering 10.
"His versatility really allowed us to say that we've got three pure centres and Garry, who is a very good centre for us but has that versatility to move around the backline.
"Andrew Conway had a tough day in England, we were on the back foot a lot of the time. This time, he got the ball on the front foot, he picked a few great running lines and there were still some bits of the game he'll try to improve on, I'm sure.
"The same with Jacob Stockdale, you want guys who can make half-chances into whole tries and I think that's what Jacob did in his second try and certainly in his first try. I thought Andrew Conway did incredibly well on the inside trail of Jack Carty on the link-up. Talking to Jack afterwards, Andrew called that even before he carried, he felt there was an opportunity there.
“That’s what you want. You want guys who are really keen to be involved and be sharp and smart in their involvements as Andrew was there.”