The long road starts here as the race to make Ireland’s World Cup squad for Japan this September ramped up, after Joe Schmidt named a 44-player training squad.
The head coach yesterday set in motion his final five months at the helm of an Ireland team he has already guided to unprecedented success in his first five-and-a-half years as boss.
The group he has selected comprises the best this island has to offer on the global stage, from proven, world-class operators to two uncapped hopefuls in Munster duo Mike Haley and Jean Kleyn.
What unites them is an ambition to play their part in the attempt to make Irish Rugby history by becoming the first team to reach a men’s Rugby World Cup semi-final, and yesterday marked the point where those objectives took a big step closer to fruition.
The next step is to do enough to survive the cut when 44 must be pared down to 31, the maximum squad size permitted by World Rugby. From the moment this group gathers for the first time on June 16 for pre-season training, including four warm-up Test between August 10 and 31, there will be 84 days before September 8: the day Schmidt must reveal his hand and name the lucky 31 who will carry Irish hopes to Japan and into that crucial pool opener against Scotland in Yokohama on September 22.
For many of the squad named yesterday, selection is all but rubber stamped, fitness permitting. Schmidt’s trusted performers over the last two years have merely to maintain their form over the summer in Tests against Italy, Wales (home and away), and England to confirm their places.
Others have been handed an opportunity they may not have thought was coming their way given previous squad selections while there are some, such as Sean O’Brien, ruled out for six months last weekend due to the need for hip surgery, for whom yesterday was a very difficult day indeed.
“If the lads went on and won it, which they’re in a great place to do, I’m not sure how I’d feel about it… you’ve missed out on something that big,” O’Brien admitted on Virgin Media One’s Ireland AM yesterday. “But I’d only be bluffing if I tried to manage this (injury) for the next few months in order to get to a World Cup and I’m not training or performing the way I want to and know I can.”
O’Brien and fellow Leinster back-rower Dan Leavy would have been in this training squad if not for injury but even in their absence it is their province which provides the backbone of the group, with 18 of the 44 from the back-to-back PRO14 champions, followed by Munster with 15, Ulster with six and Connacht supplying five players. The countdown to who will make the final cut has just begun.
Ireland’s Training Squad
Mike Haley — Uncapped English-born Munster full-back with Irish grandparents, coming off a patchy debut season following his move from Sale Sharks.
Dave Kearney — 2015 RWC squad member, the Leinster wing won 17th and most recent cap v Fiji in November 17.
Tommy O’Donnell — Openside flanker missed out on RWC2015 following dislocated hip and only just back from what was thought to be a season-ending shoulder injury.
Rory Scannell — Thought to have missed his chance when omitted from November and Six Nations squads this season but a strong left-footed kicking option at inside centre and off the tee.
Will Addison — Ulster centre was one of the stars of the November series having made Test debut against Italy in Chicago and started against Argentina.
Caolin Blade — Uncapped but impressed as a Six Nations squad member and was a more than able deputy for Connacht during Kieran Marmion’s spell on sidelines.
Tom Farrell — Like Connacht team-mate Blade, the centre earned good reviews as non-playing 6N squad member and one of the stars of his province’s resurgence under Andy Friend this season.
Stuart McCloskey — Although used sparingly by Schmidt with three caps in four seasons, the hard-running centre was Ulster’s player of the season.
Quinn Roux — Thought to be a favourite of the Irish management after back-up role during 6N when Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, and Devin Toner were injured at various points in the championship.
Dan Leavy — Leinster back row suffered serious knee injury in Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster.
Sean O’Brien — ruled out for six months last Sunday after hip injury suffered against Saracens on May 10 deemed to require surgery.