Ireland 2023 Rugby World Cup Squad…

Andy Farrell is due to announce his final 33-man world cup squad next Monday after Ireland’s final warm up match against Samoa on Saturday. No doubt some fringe players will get another chance to impress on Saturday, but the vast bulk of the squad will have been pencilled in on his World Rugby squad notification form.

Ireland plays at least one less warm up match than most other nations in the belief that the risk of injury to key players is too high. Ireland’s previous World Cup debacles have been caused, in large measure, by injuries to key players. Instead, the focus has been on very intensive training sessions and a science led fitness programme.

Ireland is assisted in this approach by the fact that our first match is against a lowly ranked Romanian side which will effectively act as a final warm-up for players like Jonny Sexton (currently suspended) and Kilcoyne, Kelleher, Sheehan, and Conan, (currently said to be carrying minor knocks).

France don’t have that luxury, their first match being against perennial contenders, New Zealand. They have already paid a price for their tougher warm up programme with star 10, Roman Ntamack, injured and out of the tournament. England have lost Jack van Portvliet and South Africa have lost Lukhanyo Am, Andre Pollard, and Lood de Jager. As against that Captain, Siya Kolisi, made an almost miraculous recovery to start against Wales.

In comparison to many countries, the Irish squad has been a picture of stability. England are in crisis with red card disciplinary processes in train against key experienced players Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, the only specialist 8 in their squad. Wales have lost a host of experienced players to injury, age, form, and de-selection and were trounced by South Africa on Saturday.

Australia’s coach, Eddie Jones, has lost every match of his brief tenure, has lost his attack coach Brad Davis, and has now has left Captain Michael Hooper and experienced 10 Quade Cooper out of his squad. Just our luck that Champions South Africa and Scotland, ranked four and five in the world and our main rivals in our group, have both been in good form.

Ireland’s first two warm up matches against Italy and England have gone as well as could be expected. Nearly all the squad have gotten some much needed match practice and a few fringe players have been given an opportunity to stake their claim. We haven’t copped any serious injuries or had players sent off. Farrell had a look at Doris at 7 and Prendergast at 8. Both options worked well but are strictly for emergencies.

The performances weren’t brilliant but neither did we show our hand too much. There are plenty of work-ons with regard to lineouts, mauls, and re-starts. A few selection issues may have been clarified and younger players got much needed experience. It’s not often a 29-10, 5 tries to 1 win against England is regarded with some disappointment. Changed times!

Farrell has already culled five from his original 42-man training squad. Caolin Blade, Jamie Osborne, Kieran Treadwell, Calvin Nash, and Gavin Coombes won’t be seeing any game time, although Blade did well against Italy. I feel particularly sorry for Coombes. He is a brilliant player but has a different style which doesn’t seem to fit the game plan. His day will come. Treadwell did well in New Zealand but seems to have lost out to the emerging Joe McCarthy.

For my money, the remaining players most at risk in the remaining cull are Tom Stewart (currently covering for the injured Kelleher and Sheehan), Frawley (covering for Sexton), Stockdale (losing out to a more versatile Earls) and McCloskey (losing out to Aki). (Loughman is currently covering for the inured Kilcoyne, and one of them will miss out). This assumes a 19/14 forwards to backs split, which seems to be the norm. I would have had Prendergast in the ‘at risk’ category, but he performed well enough against England having lost the ball in contact twice early in the match.

This yields a final 33-man squad on the following lines, with selected players in bold and back up players in Italics: (Players already discarded/injured are stricken out)

1. Porter, Healy, Kilcoyne, Loughman

2. Sheehan, Kelleher, Herring, Tom Stewart

3. Furlong, Bealham, O’Toole, Salanoa, Moore, Ryan

4. Ryan, McCarthy, Treadwell

5. Beirne, Henderson, Baird

6. O’Mahony, Prendergast

7. Van der Flier, Timoney, Connors, Penny, Hodnett

8. Doris, Conan, Coombes, Deegan

9. Gibson-Park, Casey, Murray, Blade, Doak, McGrath, Marmion, Cooney!

10. Sexton, Crowley, Ross Byrne, Frawley, Harry Byrne, Carbery,

11. Lowe, Earls, Stockdale, Daly

12. Henshaw, Aki, McCloskey

13. Ringrose, Osborne, Hume

14. Hansen, Nash, Larmour, Baloucoune

15. Keenan, O’Brien, Haley, Lowry, Conway

Ulster fans will be particularly disappointed, having missed out on quite a few marginal calls. There is an argument for bringing McCloskey as a fourth centre, as our centres have been injury prone. But bringing a specialist 12 would leave us short elsewhere. Crowley, Earls and O’Brien can all play centre if required. The only way I can see of making room for him would be to leave out Baird and go for an 18/15 split. That too would seem harsh. Baird played well in the Grand Slam win against England.

The major weakness in the squad is the lack of a specialist 7 to cover for Van Der Flier, Timoney being deemed not good enough, Connors not fully recovered from injury, and Penny and Hodnett perhaps too small. O’Mahony and Doris have both played there with some success, but that could take away from their contribution elsewhere. Baird, too, has the pace to play the role, but isn’t a natural ground hog.

Elsewhere, Farrell has gradually been plugging weaknesses in the squad. Bealham and O’Toole have made great progress at 3. Stewart could yet unseat an established 2 through injury. McCarthy is no Nick Skelton but has been starting to deliver on his early promise. We have a mobile rather than a huge pack like France or South Africa but seem to be able to hold our own in line-out, scrum and maul most of the time. I would like to see more invention in our kick off plays.

Our backline has generally delivered the goods, both individually and collectively, but rely on collective cohesion, intelligence, and organisation rather than outstanding individual talent. We don’t have a Dupont, Kolbe, Van Der Merwe or Penaud. But then we don’t have an Atonio or Skelton up front either.

What characterised this Irish team is their collective togetherness, cohesion, and experience. Not for us wholesale changes or shock omissions. That advantage may fade as other teams spend more time in camp together during the world cup, but history has shown that can as easily lead to bust-ups as everlasting friendships.

Would Leinster have won the European Cup had Sexton been playing? We will never know, but Leinster would hardly have continued bashing mindlessly against a bigger La Rochelle pack had he demanded the ball for a drop goal. Byrne doesn’t have the same authority, even if he is well respected in the team. But Can Sexton continue to perform after a long lay-off and at age 38?

I would have had Ireland favourites for the World Cup had we been drawn in the other half of the tournament. Argentina seem to be the only side going well on that side of the draw. Historically Ireland have not been able to sustain the highest levels of performance for a long period in a world cup. Tough matches and injuries to key players take their toll.

Our last warm-up match against Samoa, and Pool match against Tonga will be no gimmes. Tonga have Israel Folau, Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, and a host of former All Blacks in their squad and are a very physical side. Some injuries can be expected. Scotland were outstanding against France, and South Africa seem to be coming good at the right time.

And if we get past that lot, France at home, or a resurgent All Black side await. At our best we could beat the lot, but it will be close and possibly decided by a controversial refereeing decision. Let’s hope that good rugby wins out, and injuries don’t decide our fate. This Irish squad is the best I have ever seen.

 


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