With the Rugby World Cup 50 days away, and Ireland's World Cup warm up games nine days away - it's time to have a look at what we should be looking for in terms of Ireland's 31-man squad selection in the warm-up games.
With 47 players involved in Joe Schmidt's squad, all will be looking to be included in the final 31 man squad which will be announced by the August 31st deadline. Of those 47 players, up to 19 can be considered certainties for the final squad, injury permitting, with another seven players very close. This leaves just five spots left between 19 players.
The Certainties are:
Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross, Martin Moore, Paul O'Connell, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Johnny Sexton, Tommy Bowe, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, and Rob Kearney.
Here are the camp battles to watch out for:
Chris Henry v Tommy O'Donnell v Jordi Murphy v Jack Conan
Probably the most intriguing battle of the lot, which is why it's listed first. It's not obvious whether Schmidt will select four or five backrow players, and with O'Mahony, O'Brien and Heaslip already certain, there is probably two spots available for the remaining four backrow players involved.
Jack Conan would certainly count as a bolter, but acknowledging that his best is ahead of him - at least one set of provincial fans are set to be outraged as one of Henry, O'Donnell and Murphy will be excluded.
Back Three Free For All
The back three selection is the most open. Ireland have used six different wingers in the last two successful Six Nations campaigns, and all of those are included in the 45-man squad. That doesn't even take into account Felix Jones, Keith Earls or Craig Gilroy who are all in the running.
If we assume that Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney already have their plane tickets to London, which means there are probably just three spots free for those eight players.
Simon Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald are front-runners solely based on the fact that they were the last two wingers used. Does Schmidt's liking for Felix Jones get him the final spot? What about the returning Keith Earls? Or the top Irish top scorer in the pro 12 in Craig Gilroy? Maybe McFadden's versatility helps his case, or Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney's workrate appeal to Joe's philosophy?
I know which three I'd take, but best leave the outrage for later.
Gordon D'Arcy v Paddy Jackson v Ian Madigan v Noel Reid
Ian Madigan's versatility makes it highly likely that he will make the final squad. But on the off chance that he doesn't - the combination of Paddy Jackson and Gordon D'Arcy will be there to provide the cover to Sexton and the centres.
Or, it could be something completely different.
Schmidt will be debating with himself about whether he brings two or three outhalves. If he decides to bring three, Madigan will be designated as the centre cover aswell which hints that D'Arcy's time could be up. If not, it'll be a straight fight between Jackson and Madigan for the second outhalf spot.
Schmidt has previously said that he sees Madigan as a bench outhalf player, but is unsure about is starting qualities which lead forgotten man Ian Keatley to start against Italy in the Six Nations.
Noel Reid gets in ahead of Ulster pair Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall as the bolter candidate.
Donnacha Ryan v Dan Tuohy
If we make the giant assumption that Paul O'Connell, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson will be safe, there is an 80% chance that Schmidt will need one further lock. Henderson's presence already provides Schmidt with a second row/blindside flanker option, so Donnacha Ryan's versatility isn't as valuable as it could have been.
It will be a straight fight between two injury prone players. Ryan is just back after a long time out, while Tuohy tends to reach top form before injuring himself just as he's named in the Ireland squad. Both are talented players, Tuohy is perhaps more suited to the Paul O'Connell role, while Ryan is more suited to partnering O'Connell, much like Iain Henderson and Devin Toner.
This would lean me to flip a coin between the two talented players.
Isaac Boss v Kieran Marmion
Schmidt will take three scrumhalves the same as every World Cup squad in recent memory has done. Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan are the de facto first and second choice, which means that Schmidt will have to decide between experience or potential.
Schmidt has consistently picked Boss over Marmion when given the choice, and given that Marmion's form over the last three months weren't up to the high standards of his previous two years, it doesn't look likely that Connacht will have another representative joining Henshaw in the squad.
Tadhg Furlong v Nathan White
Nathan White's belated inclusion into the squad gives Schmidt an option of four tightheads for three supposed spots.
The tournament squad size was extended to 31 after the introduction of the extra prop on the bench. This implies that the extra man in the squad should be for a prop, and that most teams should bring nine front row players.
Added to that, an injured player can only be replaced in the squad after 48 hours. This means that if a prop gets injured in the two days before a game, having a third loosehead or tighthead prop to come in to the bench is essential, otherwise the team risk not complying to tournament rules of having enough front row players in the squad, and risk forfeiting the game.
From the official tournament rules:
1.1.7 Compliance with Law 3.5
Compliance with the relevant World Rugby Laws and Regulations is critical in the conduct of the Tournament. Should Teams be found to be in breach of Law 3.5 (suitably trained and experienced players in the front row), the matter will be forwarded to the Tournament Disputes Committee for consideration.
In the absence of any mitigating circumstances this will result in:
- forfeiture of all Match points for that fixture (including bonus points)
- possible financial penalties
In terms of the provision of front row players to comply with Law 3.5, the necessary number of reserve front row players must be included in the Tournament Team to cover last minute injuries to front row players selected in the Match Team within the 48 hour replacement timeframe set out in Section 4.5 on page XX.
Ireland taking three looseheads, three hookers and three tightheads is now a must, and therefore either the youth and power of Furlong will be battling with the experience and Joe Schmidt favouring of Nathan White. Both are uncapped, and while Schmidt has wanted to cap White before injuries got to him, Furlong was included in the original squad and could still be ahead.
Richardt Strauss v Rob Herring
Rory Best and Sean Cronin will be the first and second choice hookers in the squad, leaving one spot to be fought between South African born options Richardt Strauss and Ulster back-up Rob Herring. Strauss' pedigree and experience has him ahead of Herring already, and it's likely to stay that way.
Dave Kilcoyne v Michael Bent v Denis Buckley.
There were a lot of eyebrows raised when Michael Bent was named in the squad ahead of Munster's James Cronin or Connacht's breakout star Denis Buckley. Now that Buckley has been called up after an impressive season, he's in with a chance of playing some minutes in the warm up games. If he impresses like he has in the last 12 months, weirder things have happened.
Now that he's in the squad, Bent is still in with a chance of making the final cut. He is a Schmidt favourite, but only at loosehead prop. Unfortunately for him, Kilcoyne has impressed Schmidt whenever he's been given the chance with Ireland, and is the clear front-runner for the third and final spot.
It's a case of form against trust for all three.
Darren Cave v Flexibility
The one player not mentioned already is Darren Cave. He's one of three outside centres named along with Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, and while the inside centres are probably looking at how many spots are opened up due to reducing outhalves, Cave wouldn't benefit from that.
Cave can play both inside and outside centre - which is the positive - but there is unlikely to be a spot for him unless Schmidt decides to take one fewer back three player than already specified, or if he decides that he can do without a fourth second row, or fifth back row.
Each of those scenarios appear unlikely, and Cave is probably going to be one of the most unfortunate casualties of the restricted squad size for the World Cup.