Rugby World Cup: Four squad decisions facing Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Ireland squad
Ireland's 43-man panel will be trimmed to 31 before they travel to Japan

It's reassuring to know that for however long you might have been thinking about Ireland's Rugby World Cup squad, Joe Schmidt has been thinking about it for much, much longer.

Indeed it is safe to assume that Schmidt has been thinking about his squad since 19 October 2015.

As soon as Ireland once again fell short of a semi-final berth following defeat by Argentina, their head coach set the wheels in motion for the next World Cup cycle.

Over the past four years, everything Schmidt has done has been with a view to the 2019 World Cup.

His drive to get it just right this time stems from the idea that Ireland were caught short at the last tournament.

Injury and suspension meant that by the time Ireland arrived in Cardiff to meet Argentina, they did so without Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne.

Admittedly a particularly experienced core to be without, but the long and short of the matter was that Ireland's depth was not sufficient to cope.

And so, for four years Schmidt and the Irish Rugby Football Union have relentlessly sought to create strength in depth, to build a side that, as ruthless as it sounds, is capable of adopting a 'next man up' approach so that when the inevitable injuries arrive, the train keeps rolling.

Now, with a 43-man panel that must be trimmed to 31 by the time Ireland take off in September, Schmidt still has a number of decisions to make before finalising the squad that has been at the forefront of his mind for four long years.

1. The front row

With five props set to travel, Andrew Porter, Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan will hope they have done enough to secure the replacement spots behind first choice props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong.

The wildcard comes in the form of Jack McGrath, a British and Irish Lion in 2017, who recently moved north to Ulster having fallen down the pecking order at Leinster.

The prop, with 55 caps to his name, was taken off at half-time in the first warm-up game which despite Schmidt saying was a pre-meditated move, surely does not bode well for McGrath's selection prospects.

McGrath, Cronin and Porter
Jack McGrath (left) was taken off after 40 minutes against Italy with Andrew Porter (left) moved to loose-head

At hooker, Sean Cronin's long-awaited first international start was a disappointing one, but his stellar season with Leinster leaves him well placed to continue as chief support to skipper Rory Best.

A back spasm limited Rob Herring's participation against Italy to just 19 minutes. A bitter blow for the Ulster man who needed a big performance if he was to convince Schmidt that he was the undisputable third choice hooker over Niall Scannell, who looks likelier than Herring to travel.

2. The back row

Twelve months out from the World Cup it seemed as though openside flanker would be one of Ireland's strongest positions with O'Brien, Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier all staking a claim for the starting jersey.

However injuries to Leavy and O'Brien leave Van der Flier as the obvious shout at seven. Beside him is likely to be CJ Stander, although the ever-impressive Jack Conan will offer genuine competition at the back of the scrum. Peter O'Mahony is a sure thing at blindside.

If just one more back row place is available, it will be contested by Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock, with their versatility to play across numerous positions across the back row likely to be one of the key deciding factors.

Ruddock has been someone Schmidt has turned to for leadership both for Leinster and Ireland while Murphy will hope his ability to cover all three positions gets him the nod.

Jordi Murphy
Jordi Murphy scored Ireland's second try against Argentina in their quarter-final defeat four years ago

Another point of consideration is that Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne, both of whom will probably travel as locks, have experience playing in the back row and could slot in should Schmidt deem it necessary.

3. The half-backs

As evidenced by Joey Carbery's departure from Leinster and the non-renewal of Ruan Pienaar's Ulster contract, the IRFU have not been afraid to force the hand of the provinces to ensure that Irish players are receiving adequate game time.

In both instances, the decisions have undeniably benefitted Ireland.

Carbery has thrived as the established first choice fly-half at Munster, while Pienaar's departure paved the way for the emergence of John Cooney, who has since twice been named in the Pro14 Team of the Year.

At scrum-half, Schmidt has a strong supporting cast behind Conor Murray while Carbery was sure to travel as Sexton's understudy before suffering a knee injury against Italy.

Murray and Sexton
Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are Ireland's established half-back pairing

The word is that Carbery's injury could keep him out for between four and six weeks. If this is the case, and it has not been confirmed, then Carbery will still travel to Japan but Schimdt may look to bring a third fly-half if he is not convinced that Carbery will return to full fitness in time.

If that was the decision, then it would become a straight shootout between Jack Carty and Ross Byrne.

Carty, who enjoyed a stellar season at Connacht, produced a decent display after replacing Carbery against Italy whereas Byrne is still waiting for his chance to shine.

Given that this decision hinges on the fitness of Carbery, expect both fly-halves to receive some time on the pitch in the remaining warm-up games.

With at least five half-backs set to make the cut it could be the case that both Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion travel, after John Cooney's shock omission on 14 September..

In recent years Connacht's Marmion has been Schmidt's preferred option when Murray is not available.

Schmidt already has a headache trying to decide who out of Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose to leave out of his starting line-up for Ireland's Pool A opener with Scotland on 22 September.

Munster's Chris Farrell has impressed in all six Ireland appearances, proving himself to be rock solid in the defensive line while carrying a real threat with ball in hand. Although not a certainty, he is well placed to make the final 31.

Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney are all clear starters with Jordan Larmour providing the chief support on the wing and at full-back.

Assuming Schmidt chooses to bring 14 backs as he did in 2015, that leaves just one seat on the plane remaining.

Dave Kearney, who returned to the international scene against Italy after two years out of the side, remains the outside bet.

Addison Conway
Will Addison and Andrew Conway may be fighting for the same spot in the 31-man squad

It looks as though Andrew Conway and Will Addison will battle it out for the final spot.

Both are capable of slotting in anywhere across the backline, with Conway notching a hat-trick against the USA when given the chance to start last November before producing a man of the match display against Italy.

The Munster back is solid under the high ball, not afraid to come off his wing in search of work and has the versatility that Schmidt craves.

Addison, who Schmidt persuaded to join Ulster from Sale last summer, impressed early in his time in Belfast before injury cut his season short, but his late call-up to the World Cup panel shows Schmidt is willing to give him the chance to prove his fitness. Like Conway, he has experience playing right across the backline.

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