The pressure may be on for Ireland’s World Cup hopefuls to press their claims for a seat on the plane to Japan next month but Andy Farrell has insisted the national team management will not ease the agony for their players until the very last minute.
In the absence of head coach Joe Schmidt due to a family bereavement, defence coach Farrell presided over yesterday’s team announcement for Ireland’s Guinness Summer Series opening game against Italy in Dublin on Saturday (2pm).
It marked the point the selection process of reducing a 43-man training group to the 31 players allowed to go to the 2019 World Cup ramped up in intensity.
Two players from the initial group of 45 that gathered for pre-season on June 16, Connacht lock Ultan Dillane and Munster centre Rory Scannell, were sent back to their provinces last weekend and for those that remain, a first chance to play some rugby has finally been presented to this matchday squad of 23.
Further trimming is expected after the weekend and before Ireland head to Portugal next Wednesday for warm-weather training on the Algarve.
That leaves two further games, against England on August 24 at Twickenham and Wales a week later in Cardiff, before the bulk of the squad faces their moments of truth. Schmidt must submit his 31-man squad to World Rugby on September 2 and will have six days before revealing his hand on September 8, the day after the final warm-up at home to Wales.
While both Eddie Jones, the England boss, and Warren Gatland, his Wales counterpart, will have named their final squads some time before the deadline, Farrell yesterday confirmed the Irish management will keep its options wide open to the bitter end.
“Obviously we’ve got certain guys we know and hope are going to board the plane to Japan but it would be very dismissive of ourselves if we are locked in,” Farrell, Ireland’s next head coach, said yesterday.
“Why? Because the group deserve to be open-minded going into these games as well. Some guys worked unbelievably hard to force themselves into the squad of 45 for training back in June and they’ve all applied themselves unbelievably well.
It’s going to be really difficult to narrow it down, but it’s our jobs to do that and we’ll have to do what’s best for the team. We’ve got to make sure we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by not staying open-minded enough.
Farrell rejected the suggestion that many of the players selected to face Italy have just 80 minutes to prove their worth and could potentially play themselves out of contention tomorrow but conceded selection would be a part of every player’s thoughts.
“I’m sure that’s in the back of people’s minds but it’s not come out in the group that way at all. It’s cohesion, that’s what they’re after.
“Today’s (training) session was great, the players have started to take ownership. There’s a captain’s run tomorrow. They’ll do the same again there and on Saturday they’ll be ready to go. It will be team first. I’m sure there will be a little bit there, they wouldn’t be human if they weren’t thinking a little bit about that, but it has to be team first.
The group is strong. The cohesion of the 43 is unbelievably strong. So strong that the guys who aren’t playing this weekend have really taken ownership of really helping the guys that are maybe playing for their spots. Everyone is helping one another and that’s great to see.
Ireland will not be at full strength tomorrow afternoon at Aviva Stadium but it is a strong-looking if somewhat scratch starting XV that will see Munster lock Jean Kleyn make his Test debut alongside veteran second row Devin Toner, yesterday’s team announcement coming on the day the South African-born forward became eligible for his adopted country under the current World Rugby rules.
Flanker Rhys Ruddock will captain a side which also includes Grand Slam starter Garry Ringrose and British & Irish Lion prop Jack McGrath and gives another opportunity to Jordi Murphy to enhance his credentials at No.8, while Tommy O’Donnell is given his first Test appearance since the 2016 Six Nations.
Joey Carbery is handed another outing at fly-half to cement his position as second-choice No.10 behind Johnny Sexton and there is also the possibility of an Ireland debut off the bench for Munster’s full-back Mike Haley.
Jordan Larmour is handed the chance to repeat his electrifying performance at full-back against the Azzurri in Chicago last November, once again handed the 15 jersey in a back three with wings Andrew Conway and Dave Kearney. Ringrose partners Chris Farrell in midfield. Carbery links up in the half-backs with former Leinster team-mate Luke McGrath.