Eddie Jones may well be showing his World Cup hand a month early when he unveils his 31-man England squad for Japan today but the final cut can wait for Joe Schmidt and his Ireland selection permutations.
Schmidt watched 23 of his hopefuls produce a mixed bag at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon, one that still managed to see off an equally scratch Italian matchday squad but while some individual performances offered the Ireland head coach welcome answers to pre-game questions, he will still face plenty of head-scratching moments before further whittling down his extended 43-man squad ahead of Wednesday’s departure for a week of warm-weather training at the Quinta do Lago sports campus on Portugal’s Algarve coast.
Cutting a dozen players between now and the tournament deadline in three weeks is all the more frustrating given Schmidt’s misgivings about 31 players being “a very tight number that World Rugby limit you to”.
The one certainty is that Schmidt, having returned from a week-long absence from the camp due to a family bereavement to resume charge, is glad he is not naming his final squad today.
“I do not fancy it any day,” he said.
“I think I could probably name certainly 20, maybe a few more, but the coaching staff, we will meet after having had a look at the game and have a chat about who we think is putting their foot forward in the best possible manner and also look at guys who were maybe chasing their tail and need to demonstrate a little bit more.
Despite the ankle injury he suffered in the 50th minute, fly-half Joey Carbery ticked all the boxes required for Schmidt to rest assured his back-up for Johnny Sexton is in good form for the challenges ahead.
A good finish for Ireland’s opening try, a well-delivered execution of the pre-ordained exit strategy from his 22 and strong game management from the Munster star were all positives and enough to assume Carbery is one of the 20 already pencilled in, provided that injury does not turn out to be worse than Schmidt initially believed on Saturday evening.
Schmidt also spoke of “some fairly good contributors” and given the head coach places a premium on versatility and adaptability in his players, particularly within those tournament parameters.
He noted starting tighthead prop Andrew Porter’s positive switch to loosehead in the second half, outside centre Chris Farrell’s strong performance at inside centre, and lock Tadhg Beirne’s instant impact off the bench, not as a lock but as a ball-poaching blindside flanker.
The Munster forward, on for captain Rhys Ruddock in the 61st minute, needed less than a minute to mop up debutant Jean Kleyn’s strong tackle on Edoardo Padovani by clamping down on the full-back to win a penalty for not releasing.
Padovani was again the victim 12 minutes later when Beirne ripped the ball from him for his second turnover.
And so it went on. Praise for the work rate of starting back-rowers Ruddock, Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy, starting and finishing scrum-halves Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion, who claimed the fifth and final try on 63 minutes after charging down Ian McKinley’s kick.
Wings Dave Kearney and man of the match Andrew Conway took their first-half tries well to give Ireland a 19-10 half-time lead although there will be concerns about another sluggish Ireland start which saw Maxime Mbanda pounce from short range for the first try of the summer on 12 minutes after some passive lineout maul defence, a recurring theme for the home side.
Schmidt will look for improvement there because with three games remaining before Ireland kick off their pool campaign against Scotland in Yokohama on September 22, he will demand incremental advances from each of the warm-ups against England at Twickenham on August 24, Wales in Cardiff a week later before the Welsh return the favour in Dublin on September 7.
There is a long way to go for those yet to put their best foot forward while conversely, time is running out for those Schmidt believes are still chasing their tail and the Ireland boss will want to see that aforementioned versatility in all his players, even those in specialist positions.
In that regard, he pointed to tighthead Tadhg Furlong’s involvement in the 2015 squad as cover for looseheads Cian Healy and Jack McGrath as well as those in his own position, Mike Ross and Nathan White.
“That was a long-term investment,” Schmidt said.
“I think he’s certainly paid dividends on that investment. He commands a place at tighthead, albeit, I thought Andrew Porter was really good in 2018 when he stepped in in the Six Nations for Tadhg and he was really good (Saturday).
“Guys like that and guys like James Ryan who has become a little bit of a fixture with his repeated positive involvements in a game, he can lock either side.
“We know he plays six and eight for us so that versatility across the back row is really important for us. We talked about Chris Farrell, we had a look at Chris today in that 12 spot because we know he can play 13 for us. We’ve got guys like Robbie Henshaw who can push back into the backfield at full-back.
“That’s the sort of versatility that they can still offer and still be potentially a starting player.”
J Larmour; A Conway (M Haley, 59), G Ringrose, C Farrell, D Kearney; J Carbery (J Carty, 50), L McGrath (K Marmion, 56); J McGrath (J Ryan, h-t), R Herring (N Scannell, 19), A Porter (C Healy, 71); D Toner (I Henderson, 56), J Kleyn (Toner 62-71 - blood); R Ruddock - captain (T Beirne, 61), T O’Donnell, J Murphy.
E Padovani; A Esposito, T Benvenuti (I McKinley, 25-35 - HIA), M Minozzi (I McKinley, h-t), G Besigni; C Canna, G Palazzani (C Braley, 51); N Quaglio (A Lovotti, h-t), O Fabiani (F Zani, h-t), M Riccioni (S Ferrari, 51); A Zanni (S Negri, 53), D Budd - captain; G Licata, M Mbanda (M Lazzaroni, 48), J Tuivaiti (R Giammarioli, 50).
Luke Pearce (England)