So based on recent form and past experience, who are the players in contention to make Andy Farrell’s world cup extended training squad and, more importantly, the final 33 man squad itself? My favourites for the 33 Man squad are listed in bold. Players likely to make the extended training squad are listed in ordinary type face. Possibilities on the fringes are listed in italics. Players who have dropped out of contention due to injury, movement abroad, selectorial preference or form have been
stricken out, although some may recover in time.
1. Porter, Healy, Kilcoyne, Loughman, Milne
2. Sheehan, Kelleher, Herring, Tom Stewart, Barron, Heffernan
3. Furlong, Bealham, O’Toole, Archer,
4. Ryan, McCarthy, Kleyn, Treadwell, Murray,
5. Beirne, Baird, Henderson,
6. O’Mahony, Prendergast, Deegan
7. Van der Flier, Timoney, Hodnett, Penny, O’Donoghue, Kendellen,
8. Doris, Conan, Coombes
9. Gibson-Park, Casey, Murray, Blade, Doak, McGrath,
10. Sexton, Ross Byrne, Crowley, Harry Byrne, Frawley,
11. Lowe, Earls, Daly, Stockdale
12. Henshaw, Aki, McCloskey
13. Ringrose, Hume, Frisch,
14. Hansen, Larmour, Baloucoune, Nash
15. Keenan, O’Brien, Lowry,
There are some tough calls when selecting the final thirty-three. O’Toole must be close, but can we afford to include 6 props in a 33 man squad? Porter and Healy’s ability to switch to tight had if required means a third specialist tight head may have to be sacrificed. Stewart must be pushing Herring close, but is it too late for an uncapped player to make the cut? Can Kilcoyne fend off the challenge of Loughman?
Henderson used to be a shoe in, but injury and form have reduced him to a marginal player. Baird and a late challenge from Kleyn or a fit again Joe McCarthy could unseat him and Treadwell. And who will understudy Van der Flier? Timoney is the man in possession, but Hodnett and Penny have put in a late charge. Or Farrell could cut corners and ask O’Mahoney, Doris or even Baird or Deegan to cover the position – especially useful against a huge pack like South Africa or France. We have an embarrassment of riches at 6 and 8.
Casey and Crowley seem to have cemented their places after their performance against Leinster, with Harry Byrne or Frawley candidates for the training squad. Hume could lose out due to Ulster’s mixed form, but McCloskey should have done enough to retain his place. For me Stockdale and Baloucoune lack the physicality and work rate required at the top level and could lose out to a fit again Earls or a rampant Daly.
I have included 50 players in the extended training squad which is on the large side. If Farrell goes for a smaller number, Players like Stockdale, Hodnett, Hume and Lowry could lose out. Leinster and Munster’s finals against La Rochelle and Stormers could yet influence selection, and there will always be injuries. But right now, Farrell has a pretty full deck to choose from, which means even some very talented players will lose out.
So, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the squad when you measure them against the standards required of the world’s #1 ranked team and to be contention to win the World Cup? Our weaknesses at prop have been mitigated to some degree by the rise of Bealham and O’Toole although Furlong has yet to recover his best form, and depth at loose head remains a concern. We don’t have a monster lock, but Ryan and Beirne are in excellent form and players like Baird, McCarthy or Kleyn could make up for size with athleticism and work rate.
There is a drop in standard below VD Flier at 7, but Farrell could decide to deploy O’Mahony, Doris, or Baird there to combat the really big packs and accommodate Conan in the starting team. South Africa have regularly played a lock at 7, and Baird is as fast as any forward in the world.
Farrell’s investment in Casey has paid off and Murray’s form has improved. Ross Byrne and Crowley’s form has allayed fears about back-up to Sexton, and we have a fine stock of centres. We lack outstanding pace, elusivenss or physicality on the wings, but the work rate of Hansen, Lowe, and O’Brien et al seems to mean that this does not matter all that much. Keenan has become a contender for best 15 in the world.
In general, our first XV players have continued to improve and most now have genuine claims to be regarded as world class. But perhaps of most significance in the context of a World Cup is that our back-up players have also been improving steadily in most positions, which means Farrell will be able to rotate his squad to avoid injury and burnout and increase our chances of progressing in the competition.
Past Irish world cup squads have become undone when half a dozen front liners have been over-played or injured. The fears of an injury to a few of Sexton, Furlong, Sheehan, Ryan, Beirne, Doris, Conan, VD Flier, Gibson-Park, Henshaw, Ringrose, Hansen, Lowe or Keenan undermining the chances of the team in crunch matches are therefore much reduced.
We have an awful draw in the World cup, playing Tonga (including several ex-All Black and Australian test players), South Africa, Scotland and (if we qualify) New Zealand or France at home in quick succession, followed by a semi-final and final if we get there. Leinster have just shown the difficulty of playing 5 crunch matches in quick succession even with a strong squad.
We will need some more of our current squad players to step up and become world class if we are to have a chance of winning the world cup. Our first XV is still very readily identifiable and we need our back-up players to close the gap still further. There is rarely much controversy about the selection of the Irish team, and that is not a particularly healthy position to be in. In an ideal world there should be controversy and debate over every place in the team with no established players sure of their place.
All that said, Irish rugby is currently in a very good place with the Irish team ranked world #1 and Grand Slam Champions, and Leinster and Munster in the European Cup and URC finals. The Leinster Munster clash was of test standard and yet many in both teams will not make the World Cup squad. Connacht gave the Stormers a run for their money in the Semi-final and Ulster finished second in the regular season URC table. All four have qualified for next season’s European Cup along with Stormers, Glasgow, Bulls, and, risibly, Cardiff, as the leading Welsh side, despite finishing only tenth in the table.
The world Champions, South Africa, and their clubs have lost some of their aura of invincibility and we are learning to deal with their physicality. New Zealand’s voodoo spell over us has long been broken, and even France in Paris are not quite the intimidating prospect they once were. English and Welsh rugby are close to crisis, and we have shown we can beat Scotland or Australia.
All that said, you are only as good as your last game, and many pitfalls await. Has Farrell succeeded in inculcating a no excuses winning mentality into the team? Your thoughts?
(Meanwhile, congratulations to the Irish Women’s 7’s team for qualifying for the Olympic games for the first time by beating Fiji and finishing fifth ahead of Great Britain in the Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series. The men’s team are still in contention for a place in the Olympics and have moved up to 8th. place in the world rankings after a sixth place finish in Toulouse including wins over Samoa, Japan – by record score and margin – and Great Britain. They need to win June’s European Games in Krakow to qualify).
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.