Ireland’s defeat to Wales may have thrown up more questions than answers but Joe Schmidt nevertheless had no choice but to make some decisions as he pushed the final pieces into position for his World Cup squad yesterday.
Thee may well be some wiggle room for the Ireland head coach, who will submit his 31-man squad to World Rugby by today’s 5pm deadline in the knowledge he can still make changes should some of the riskier choices prove unfit before departing for Cardiff on September 16.
After that, having arrived at the tournament ahead of their Pool D opener versus Canada three days later, any withdrawals must receive tournament clearance on medical grounds before a replacement can be drafted in.
That will not have made some of the decisions any easier as Schmidt broke the news, both celebratory and heartbreaking, to those who made his squad and the unfortunates who failed to make it.
Even the celebrations will not have lasted too long for the World Cup squad comes together at Carton House today to begin preparation for this Saturday’s final pre-tournament Test, a collision with World Cup hosts England at Twickenham. And the first thing the chosen ones will face is a clinical dismantling of their below-par performance against Wales in Dublin last Saturday, not least the 15 penalties conceded.
Allowance must be made for the big-hitting spine of the team – Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney - making their first starts of pre-season while the Welsh looked much further along in their rugby sharpness for this summer rematch.
And then there were the injuries. Hooker Richardt Strauss rolled an ankle, Keith Earls left the field on a stretcher and is going through concussion protocols while his brother-in-arms Luke Fitzgerald followed him off shortly after nursing an injured glute.
None are injured seriously enough to rule them out but it was a further muddying of the waters for Schmidt and his coaching staff as they went into conclave on Saturday night.
The bulk of their deliberations were box-ticking exercises as a hardcore of around 20 players will have been automatic selections. The hard part came in two key areas, the front row and the outside backs, both departments where injuries and lack of match readiness clouded decision-making.
Props Cian Healy and Marty Moore are central figures, one as starting loosehead and the latter a top-level back-up to tighthead Mike Ross. Healy, on the road back from neck surgery in May, received a bullish status update from Schmidt last Thursday and has a chance of getting some game-time at Twickenham this weekend, his place in the squad seemingly assured.
Yet carrying one recovering prop into the tournament impacts on the merits of including another and Nathan White’s effective performance against Wales veteran Gethin Jenkins in his first Ireland start augured badly for the undercooked Moore, nursing a foot injury, particularly as Schmidt dismissed the two scrum penalties conceded by the 34-year-old Connacht prop as refereeing mis-reads.
That probably left one more call in the front row with the decision of whether to go with a third specialist, loosehead Dave Kilcoyne, or Michael Bent, less effective but able to play both sides.
There were similar conundrums in the back three where Dave Kearney did himself no harm at all with a fine performance against the Welsh, winning his aerial battles and successfully defending his opposite number, no mean feat when he comes in the form of George North. Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble both scored tries for Ulster on Friday night although Schmidt’s concerns over the latter’s lack of game time – 34 minutes of Test rugby in 18 months – may count against Ireland’s 2014 player of the year.
Trimble’s hopes may have been lifted by the fresh fitness concerns over Earls and Fitzgerald although, again, they can both cover in midfield and that flexibility is a huge asset in a Schmidt squad. That they were both hurt last Saturday may have made taking both of the hugely talented but injury-wracked backs a risk.
Schmidt’s reference to his own flexibility in being able to adjust the 31 between today’s submission and Ireland’s arrival at the tournament 17 days later, kept that prospect alive, however, and with a potentially huge physical encounter with England looming this weekend, his final squad may still have some room for alteration. The message to those omitted was a simple one: stand by your phones.
“It’s a bit of a Catch 22,” Schmidt said of making his selection, “because we need to get into camp (today) and we need to start working, so players need to get sufficient notice of going back into camp and rolling their sleeves up again to go forward.
“And at the same time I think guys who are going back to their provincial environments, they need to be given enough time to make sure that they get in and get the opportunity to play well because the players that don’t get selected, they could be really important to us. We have another massive Test match next week and I’ve no doubt it’s going to be incredibly physical after the game that England played last time. So some of those guys who go back to their provinces they need to get the game time to prepare them for potentially joining us and heading off to the World Cup.”
Schmidt said selecting his final 31 was an imperfect process, not least in the limited game-time afforded his players despite their extended time in camp this summer. Which means the three Tests this month were crucial in his decision-making. They were the litmus test and the Ireland boss now has to stand back and trust his judgement.
IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls (F Jones, 63), L Fitzgerald (D Ryan, 67), R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton (P Jackson, 63), C Murray (E Reddan, 63); J McGrath (D Kilcoyne, 60), R Strauss (S Cronin, 50), N White (T Furlong, 56); I Henderson, P O’Connell – captain; P O’Mahony (S O’Brien, 51), J Murphy, J Heaslip.
WALES: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts (H Amos, 60), G North; D Biggar (R Priestland, 63), R Webb (G Davies, 63); G Jenkins (P James, 46), K Owens (S Baldwin, 54), T Francis (A Jarvis, 53) ; B Davies (L Charteris, 53), A W Jones – captain (J King, 72); D Lydiate (J King, 51-60), J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa).
Ireland V Wales 60 seconds
At the very death, when Ireland were denied victory under the posts. Sean Cronin’s carry got over the line but the Welsh defence continued its excellent performance to the bitter end to hold the ball up and secure their deserved win.
Joe Schmidt called it deja vu as Ireland committed the same errors at the breakdown against Wales that his team had made in Cardiff last March. That is a concern and his players will have to sharpen up and learn their lessons quickly with the World Cup looming in three weeks.
Though Iain Henderson was superb for Ireland, his performance in the second row capped by a powerful carry for his team’s only try, Wales flanker Justin Tipuric was fully deserving of his man of the match award. The openside was brilliant in defence, winning penalty after penalty at the breakdown, and attack, scoring his side’s try in the first half.
Craig Joubert gave Ireland a hard time throughout and though Joe Schmidt questioned a couple of the official’s decisions, he was alarmed at the high penalty count as every inaccuracy was punished. Penalties conceded: Ireland 15 plus two free kicks; Wales eight.
A positive post-match injury report despite seeing Keith Earls leave the game on a stretcher and Luke Fitzgerald hobble out soon after. Schmidt said he thought neither Earls’s concussion nor Fitzgerald’s glute issue would prevent their selection for World Cup duty.
Ireland bid to bounce back with a final pre-World Cup Test against hosts England, themselves looking to prove a point after losing in France, at a sold-out Twickenham on Saturday.
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