Preparations for next month’s World Cup and the make-up of Joe Schmidt’s final squad of 31 players will take a distinct turn towards the cutthroat this weekend when the Six Nations champion embark on their four-Test warm-up schedule against old foes Wales at a sold-out Millennium Stadium tomorrow.
After five weeks of training and conditioning, the process now takes on the air of a reality show as players are challenged to take their chance or pack their bags with Schmidt naming his first matchday squad yesterday and revealing he will start to whittle down his 46-man squad after this Cardiff encounter with seven or eight players facing eviction.
That does not necessarily mean those who take the pitch tomorrow are the ones with their cases packed. But something has to give and Schmidt said he would rather do some of it sooner rather than later ahead of his final cut at the end of the month.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the one opportunity,” Schmidt said of his selection, “they’ve worked really hard and we’ve taken note of they’ve trained. It’s a very narrow window but it is the litmus test, it is where we find out whether they can stay in the game and physically and mentally deliver what is required.”
With the head coach’s frontliners being reintroduced gradually over the course of this month, depending on their their workloads last season, firstchoice number 8 Jamie Heaslip captains a side that features just one other member of the XV from the RBS 6 Nations Championship-sealing victory over Scotland at Murrayfield last March, tighthead prop Mike Ross, with
promotion to the starting line-up for five of that afternoon’s benchwarmers – Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan and Felix Jones.
Not that this is a makeshift side and, significantly, there are no debutants in the matchday 23, more a case of reintroducing some old friends after lengthy injuries.
Step forward Munster duo Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan for their first Test caps of the Schmidt era as well as Andrew Trimble, the player of the championship for the 2014 Six Nations who lost a season due to a toe problem.
Earls forms a centre partnership with Ulster’s Darren Cave on his inside shoulder while Trimble returns to the wing in a back three with full-back Jones and Fergus McFadden another
wing whose opportunities have been limited due to injury. Ryan forms a second-row with Iain Henderson, in a combination of two locks equally at home at blindside flanker and likely vying for one of the 17 forwards spots Schmidt yesterday hinted he will allot within his 31-man final squad.
F Jones (Munster); A Trimble (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), D Cave (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster); P Jackson (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Strauss (Leinster), M Ross (Leinster); I Henderson (Ulster), D Ryan
(Munster); J Murphy (Leinster), T O’Donnell (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster) – captain.
R Best (Ulster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), M Bent (Leinster), D Tuohy (Ulster), C
Henry (Ulster), K Marmion (Connacht), I Madigan (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster).