Ross Byrne will get the chance to nail down his World Cup place at Twickenham tomorrow as Joe Schmidt juggles his fly-half options for next month’s final cut.
With Joey Carbery’s ankle injury likely to rule the Munster star out of the rest of Ireland’s World Cup preparations over the next three weeks and first-choice number 10 Johnny Sexton not quite ready for action following an early-summer thumb injury, Ireland have turned to their two least inexperienced playmakers, Byrne and Jack Carty, to see them through the high-intensity workout England will provide in London tomorrow.
Head coach Schmidt yesterday indicated that despite Carbery’s unavailability following the ankle injury he suffered when starting against Italy in the opening Guinness Summer Series Test in Dublin on August 10, his versatility as both a full-back and auxiliary scrum-half within the tight confines of the 31-player squad mandated by World Rugby for next month’s tournament in Japan means Byrne and Carty may be scrapping for the final piece of the out-half jigsaw.
Carbery, 23, has been with the squad but working with Ireland’s strength and conditioning staff at their warm-weather camp in Portugal this week and was set to fly back to Dublin from Faro yesterday with the other players not involved this weekend as the matchday squad and travelling reserves flew to London.
“I know Joey well and I’ve got a lot of time for Joey,” Schmidt said in an upbeat assessment of Carbery’s chances of making the final squad. “One of the things for us is that versatility Joey gives us. The other three 10s tend to be locked on 10s. Joey can play 15 and nine, that’s massive in a World Cup squad.
“I think 31 is a very skinny squad when you’ve got five- and four-day turnarounds in a tournament. When player management and player welfare is being trumpeted as the number-one priority, it just seems that that’s at cross-purposes with that.
“But it does force you to consider someone of Joey’s talent and flexibility, even if you don’t think he’ll get that last Wales (warm-up) game (on September 7) as a lead-in, but you think he’ll be fully fit for the Scotland game.
Carbery will be kept guessing along with Byrne and Carty until Monday, September 2, two days after Ireland’s first game with Wales in Cardiff when Schmidt must submit his final 31 to World Rugby.
“Is Joey available or not? We’re waiting just like you guys really,” the Ireland boss said. “We’re going to wait and see how he goes. He’s progressed well this week, but we have to be patient. It’s the next two weeks which will really determine whether he’s up and running.
“If he gets back for the Wales game, we know he’s good. If he doesn’t, if he’s not looking like he’s getting up and running — because we have to name the squad before that — then we’ve a decision to make. Part of that whole conundrum is the two lads who get to play this weekend and that’s part of the logic in giving them the opportunity.”
Schmidt has guaranteed both Byrne and Carty, 26, gametime at Twickenham tomorrow, although he acknowledged they have contrasting skillsets at number 10, with Byrne more in the Sexton mould than his rivals.
“A little bit, that’s probably a fair observation. I think Ross’s ability to control the game, it’s one of the things that was defining between Joey and him at Leinster probably in that Ross ran the game and Joey ran really well individually but I think it’s also something that comes with a rhythm and game time.
“Jack, whenever he came off the bench for us in the Six Nations, I thought he did a super job. So we have a lot of confidence in Jack being able to control the game and we do think he can bring a bit of a change-up off the bench.
“Either way, I think they’ll both get a bit of game time on Saturday to demonstrate what they can bring to the game.”
Byrne, 24, starts his first Test for Ireland in his third appearance following a November debut in Chicago against Italy, and will have some heavy-hitters around him in a side that also throws Munster lock Jean Kleyn in at the deep end for his second cap following his debut against the Italians two weeks ago.
Rory Best will captain the side in a first-choice front row alongside props Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong. Kleyn forms a second row with Iain Henderson while Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, and CJ Stander comprise the back row.
Rob Kearney starts at full-back with Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale on the wings and Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose form the midfield partnership while scrum-half Conor Murray is another frontliner getting his first action of the summer this weekend alongside Byrne in the half-backs as the Leinster 10 is handed the biggest start of his career.
“He’s trained really well and it’s not his debut,” Schmidt said of Byrne, “he’s had time with us before so that we’ve got a lot of confidence in him anyway and I think he built his way through the season. I thought he was maybe not as impressive as Jack (Carty) early in the season, and I think those two have become really important to us.”
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt described Jean Kleyn’s inclusion in the team for Twickenham as ‘a priority’ as he assesses the balance of his second-row stocks for next month’s World Cup in Japan.
Kleyn, who qualified for Ireland earlier this month after three years of residency following his move from South Africa’s Stormers to Munster in 2016, made his Test debut two days later against Italy on August 10 and received rave reviews.
Head coach Schmidt now wants a further look at the lock, who will partner Iain Henderson tomorrow against England with selection rivals Devin Toner and Tadhg Beirne on the bench with James Ryan held back before an expected start on August 31 against Wales in Cardiff.
“The thing is we gave him some things to work on from last time and we want to see if those can materialise on Saturday,” Schmidt said of Kleyn. “Because he’s so new in, we felt that it was a priority to give him the time.
“It is a fickle balance at the moment. Dev (Toner) knows our game inside out so needed less of the time, Iain Henderson has just trained so well this week, we’re looking forward to seeing him out there and it also gives Tadhg Beirne the opportunity to be that cover-all back row, second row.
“I’m not saying he (Beirne) is not good enough to start in either of those positions but he’s nice security, having him covering all five of those back five positions, albeit seven we’d probably need to mix and match somebody but he can cover six, No.8 or five.”