Joe Schmidt described choosing the 32 players he will take to Australia next month as the most difficult process of his tenure as Ireland head coach but it is clear he has selected a squad with a series victory over the Wallabies at the top of his priority list.
Despite chatter about end-of-season rests for Johnny Sexton and the other British & Irish Lions who toured New Zealand last summer, Schmidt will go into the first Test in Brisbane in 17 days with the bulk of the squad who delivered the Six Nations Grand Slam in March as Ireland bid to extend their national-record winning streak to 13 internationals at Suncorp Stadium on June 9.
Just 16 months out from the World Cup in Japan, Schmidt has gone for an experienced and proven squad to lay down a marker that the second-ranked team in the world are worthy contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup. There are patently still boxes left to tick as the head coach hones the group of 31 players he is permitted to name in his World Cup squad with the cover at fly-half for Johnny Sexton uppermost in his thoughts since Ireland’s exit to Argentina at the quarter-final stage in 2015, when Sexton’s late withdrawal from the game in Cardiff meant throwing the number 10 jersey onto the shoulders of an unprepared Ian Madigan.
The IRFU’s decision to revoke Paddy Jackson’s contract at Ulster following a disciplinary hearing arising from the rape trial at which he was acquitted in March, and the reluctance of Leinster to play Schmidt’s next in line, Joey Carbery, at fly-half this season, has further muddied the waters.
Carbery remains the Ireland’s boss’s go-to covering fly-half, the 22-year-old named on the bench in all five of the Six Nations games this season and replacing Sexton in four of them to close out victories en route to the Slam. But the head coach will also take the uncapped Ross Byrne to Australia.
Byrne, 23, is Leinster’s preferred cover for Sexton, with the Champions Cup winners choosing to deploy Carbery as a full-back, the end result being Ireland will go Down Under with all three Leinster fly-halves, Schmidt pulling the plug on Munster’s playmaker Ian Keatley, a regular in camp this season and first-choice starter for his province until a poor showing in the European semi-final defeat to Racing 92 last month.
There is also a place for Scarlets’ Munster-bound lock Tadhg Beirne, 26, to earn his Test debut three summers after being released by Leinster after just 10 appearances for his home province.
There will be disappointment for several of Beirne’s future team-mates as Munster players pay the price for a disappointing end to their campaign, hooker Niall Scannell losing out to Ulster’s Rob Herring, while there was no room for centres Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold, both of whom were members of Ireland’s extended Six Nations squad.
Champions Cup-winning Leinster players as expected form the backbone of the travelling party with 17 players, while there are six from Munster, five from Ulster, three Connacht men and Beirne the only non-Irish-based player to be named.
“At midday today (Wednesday) we made the final decisions which included a number of very tough calls and some players are incredibly unlucky to miss out on selection.
“The coaching group are excited by the challenge that this three-Test tour will present and from talking to the players we get a sense that they too are excited about going on tour and testing themselves against one of the best sides in the world in their own backyard.”
With a squad boasting 948 caps, captained once again by Rory Best whose 111th appearance for Ireland saw him presented with the Six Nations trophy at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, it is a strong squad which the Wallabies will be eager to take down a peg or two in this upcoming series.
Australia head coach Michael Cheika, who will name his squad for the series next Wednesday, said the 2015 World Cup finalists would be gunning for Schmidt’s men:
“Where we are now, with Grand Slam champions coming now, I think it is a good gauge,” Cheika said.
“It’s going to be tough but we’re looking forward to putting ourselves up against a contrasting style of play. They are obviously very well coached, they’ve got a clear and coherent plan they want to deliver and they deliver that plan every week.
“That’s what’s got them to number two in the world and it’s a place that we’ll be looking to cut them down from when they come over here.”
Ireland squad for summer tour of Australia
Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster, captain, 111 caps), Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets, uncapped), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster, 7), Sean Cronin (St Mary’s College/Leinster, 61), Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster, 23), Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster, 78), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster, 38), Rob Herring (Ballynahinch/Ulster, 3), Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster, 9), Jack McGrath (St Mary’s College/Leinster, 47), Jordi Murphy (Lansdowne/Leinster, 20), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster, 47), Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster, 7), Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht, 5), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster, 8), John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster, 13), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster, 23), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster, 58)
Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht, 7), Ross Byrne (UCD/Leinster, uncapped), Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster, 10), Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster, 6), John Cooney (Terenure College/Ulster, 1), Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster, 67), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster, 33), Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster, 83), Jordan Larmour (St Mary’s College/Leinster, 3), Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht, 21), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster, 64), Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster, 13), Johnny Sexton (St Mary’s College/Leinster, 73), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster, 9)
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