Twice-capped lock Jean Kleyn was the surprise inclusion as Joe Schmidt revealed his 31-man Ireland squad for the World Cup ahead of schedule on Monday, the Munster forward’s keeping out veteran Devin Toner in the final shake-up.
In another unexpected move, head coach Schmidt preferred Luke McGrath as his back-up scrum-half over Conor Murray’s long-standing number two Kieran Marmion.
Yet it is Toner’s omission that is the biggest shock in Ireland’s selection for Japan when the national team will bid to reach its first semi-final following seven visits to the quarter-finals in the first eight World Cups.
The Leinster lock, 33, has but for injury been a constant in Schmidt’s matchday squads since the New Zealander took charge in 2013 but has been slipping down the second-row pecking order of late and Ireland will now lean on Iain Henderson and James Ryan as their first-choice lineout pairing with Munster duo Kleyn and Tadhg Beirne also travelling.
For Kleyn, 26 last week, it is a rapid promotion having only qualified on residency two days before his Ireland debut against Italy on August 10. Beirne’s inclusion is a tribute to his versatility as a lock and blindside flanker while in a similar decision-making process, Schmidt has selected Rhys Ruddock over Jordi Murphy for a back-up forward who can play across the back row.
Ruddock joins Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier as the travelling back rowers.
Like Toner, scrum-half Marmion was seen as one of Schmidt’s reliables, providing dependable cover off the bench for Murray and starting some important victories, including last November’s wins over Argentina and New Zealand.
Leinster number nine McGrath, though, has earned his place in a squad featuring five half-backs, three of them fly-halves, on the back of impressive performances this summer and during his province’s run to last season’s PRO14 title and Champions Cup final.
Of the other notable selection dilemmas facing the Irish management following Saturday’s victory over Wales in Cardiff, Connacht’s Jack Carty has won the battle to be the third fly-half behind Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery, who is also covering scrum-half, following his man of the match performance at the weekend. Carty’s inclusion comes at the expense of Ross Byrne.
Solving the puzzle of balance in the centres and back three has seen wing/full-backs Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway earn their places while centre Chris Farrell held off the claims of the versatile Ulster back Will Addison, the starting full-back in Cardiff, to claim his seat on the plane.
The front row picks see Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin get the nod as hookers alongside Rory Best, confirmed as captain in the announcement, as Rob Herring misses out while amongst the props Dave Kilcoyne’s rampaging first-half against Wales on Saturday was enough for him to see 2017 British & Irish Lion Jack McGrath as the second loosehead behind Cian Healy. Ireland will take three tightheads with Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter and John Ryan selected, Porter also covering loosehead, as can Ryan.
As expected, Leinster provide the majority of the 31 with 14 representatives, Munster have 12 players on the squad with Ulster three and Connacht two.
"It was a difficult thing right from the start to have the 45 that we had. We went down to 40 players and to go from 40 down to 31 was really difficult, but we had a process whereby we looked back through every training, looked through the games," Schmidt told Irish Rugby TV.
"There were some guys who obviously had more experience and probably had more credit in the bank and were more established and there were other guys who were trying to force their way into group and trying to get a balance of current form versus previous performance, it’s always a very very difficult conundrum to try to solve.
"It was one of those typical selection meetings where maybe 20-25 of the players are listed straight away and it’s those ones where you’re are trying to get balance where it’s very difficult to choose between two players and two players offer slightly different things and you’re trying then to narrow down and trying to get the best balance across the squad of the entire 31 because that’s part of what you need to do because you’ve got to make sure you have cover that’s immediate even though you can replace players there is obviously a big time delay in that."
Ireland play their final warm-up game against Wales in Dublin this Saturday ahead of their opening Pool A game against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday, September 22.
IRELAND 2019 WORLD CUP SQUAD
Hooker (3): Rory Best (Ulster), Niall Scannell (Munster), Sean Cronin (Leinster)
Prop (5): Cian Healy (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster)
Lock (4): James Ryan (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jean Kleyn (Munster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster)
Back row (5): Peter O’Mahony (Munster), CJ Stander (Munster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
Scrum-half (2): Conor Murray (Munster), Luke McGrath (Leinster)
Out-half (3): Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Jack Carty (Connacht)
Centre (4): Bundee Aki (Connacht), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Chris Farrell (Munster)
Back three (5): Jacob Stockdale (Ulster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Keith Earls (Munster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Andrew Conway (Munster).