It does not take a mathematician to realise seven into five won’t go but the task facing Ireland team management as they juggle their half-back permutations for the upcoming World Cup may be up there with the work of the best Nobel Prize winners.
In these days of high-intensity, ultra-physical and attritional Test match rugby, the maximum of 31 players permitted for each World Cup squad looks unrealistically low to see a squad through a potential eight-match run to the Webb Ellis trophy.
Boil that figure down deeper to the split between backs and forwards and deeper still by position and it is no wonder Joe Schmidt and his coaches are using the maximum time available before revealing their hand on the World Rugby deadline of September 2.
Add four preparatory summer Tests into the equation and the decision-making process is clouded further again with the first of those delivering a serious blow to the best-laid plans by the ankle injury to fly-half Joey Carbery.
Having started brightly against Italy in Dublin on August 10, the Munster playmaker and primary back-up to Johnny Sexton as Ireland number 10 saw his hopes of a World Cup debut in Japan next month thrown into doubt as his left leg crumpled beneath a ruck on 50 minutes, ruling Carbery out for between four and six weeks.
The injury also impacts on the pre-tournament gametime previously planned not just for Sexton but for less-experienced fly-halves Jack Carty and Ross Byrne while skills coach Richie Murphy yesterday suggested the door was now open for both Byrne and Carty to claim places in the final 31 at Carbery’s expense.
Both Carty, with four Ireland caps, and Byrne, capped twice, could feature this Saturday as Ireland ramp up preparations for their World Cup opener against Scotland on September 22 with a tough assignment against England at Twickenham.
“It’s definitely made us think and work out what the best route forward is for us,” Murphy said yesterday following Ireland’s latest training session at their warm-weather base at Quinta do Lago on Portugal’s Algarve.
“We can’t go into a World Cup with a situation where we’ve only got Johnny as, maybe, our main 10, and other guys who haven’t had exposure at that level. We can’t do that. These three games are an opportunity in order to get guys some game time, and an opportunity to sort of stake a claim for a spot in that squad.
“Unfortunately that’s been taken away from Joey; it’s out of his hands now. So what can he do? Well, he has to get himself fit and show and give confidence to the coaches that he’s ready to play.
But it is a difficult situation for Joey because his first game could be Scotland and we mightn’t have seen a hell of a lot of him in training before that. So in some ways, it’s come out of Joey’s control in relation to staking a claim for his place in the squad.
Murphy yesterday indicated taking three nines and three 10s to Japan would be too detrimental to the balance of the rest of the squad, implying Ireland would travel east with just two scrum-halves from Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath, as was the case in 2015 when Murray and Eoin Reddan went to England alongside Sexton, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, who also travelled as an auxiliary nine.
Carbery would serve that role this time, making his potential loss an even greater blow.
“We’re definitely leaning towards five half-backs,” Murphy said. “We’ll probably bring 14 backs. You can’t take six in those (half-back) positions. The one guy that gives you that flexibility is somebody like Joey where he’s quite comfortable playing at 15. He changes the shake-up there a little bit because he can play 15, he can play 10 and back in years gone by he’s played nine. So he gives us great cover in that regard.”
The feeling is that Carbery has to go to Japan if Ireland are prepared to take a player with just 50 minutes under his belt this summer, unless both Byrne and Carty can make strong cases for Plan B.
Twickenham this weekend is as good a place to start as any in making up for lost time against Tier-One opposition.
“We’ve a lot of faith in Ross and Jack,” Murphy said. “They all bring slightly different strengths. Ross’ organisation and ability to run the team is really strong. Jack plays lovely sort of free ball and organises well, and he’s great at spotting space behind, and is also quite quick when he gets through the line.
“Those two, in particular, give us different options and we just have to work out what it actually is we need for the squad and what’s best for the individual in relation to game time to get them ready for the World Cup, but it’s also what’s best for the rest of the players in the team and what kind of a ‘10’ we need.
“We’re not looking for them to be anyone else, play the game the way they see it, fit into the squad, fit into the team and bring confidence to the guys around them.”