With the Six Nations season about to come back in to focus, and with Rugby World Cup 2015 looming on the horizon, the next 9 matches and 34 weeks take on a whole new dimension. Here at The Ankle Tap, we will take a look each month on who looks most likely to occupy a seat on the plane to Cardiff. The window to impress our man Joe is diminishing by the day, and if past squad selection is anything to go by, the majority of the seats may already be occupied. Unfortunately for some, injury will ruin their chances of playing a part on the biggest stage of all à la David Wallace in 2011. With this in mind, we will take a look at the depth at each position, and try to keep you updated on injuries and form as we edge ever-closer to a tilt at the Rugby World Cup. With only 31 places up for grabs, there will be plenty of despondent and disappointed players come the start of September. There will be a number of players, possibly even some former Lions tourists, left out of the RWC squad, and this just goes to show that Irish Rugby appears to be in its rudest health yet.
For the purposes of this article, and based on our own thoughts, we reckon that Ireland will go for a 17/14 split between forwards and backs. From the assumption that 17/14 is the magic number, based on previous squads it would appear that 5 props, 3 hookers, 4 locks and 5 back row members will make up the forwards who will embark on the plane come September carrying the hopes and dreams of the nation. They will be accompanied by 14 backs, which should logically consist of 3 scrum-halves, 2 out-halves, 4 centres and 5 outside backs.
The small nature of the squad means that more of an emphasis may be placed on players who can cover multiple positions, which would seemingly tilt selection in favour of utility players of the ilk of Messrs McFadden, Henderson and Madigan to name a few. While there may be a worry that carrying too many utility players might leave the squad short of natural fits, Mr. Schmidt has shown a penchant for fitting a square peg into a round hole, Rhys Ruddock playing the November Internationals at 7 and Henshaw starting against South Africa at 12 stand out as the most recent examples of the Kiwi’s ability to adapt to a shortage at certain positions. This “next man up” approach will be critical to any hopes Ireland have of advancing deep into the business end of the competition.
Following the announcement of an extended 46 man squad for the Wolfhounds game against the England Saxons and the Six Nations, it appears that there are still a few places yet to be set in stone, and Schmidt is giving everyone their chance to come in to camp and make an impression. With this 46 man squad in mind, we have compiled a long-list of those we believe to be in contention for those magical 31 places upon the plane.
Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross and Marty Moore appear to be the frontrunners for the first four berths in the squad. That leaves the question of whether Joe will go with a tighthead or a loosehead as his fifth option. One from James Cronin, David Kilcoyne, Nathan White, Stephen Archer, Tadhg Furlong and Michael Bent seems to be the choice that Schmidt has to make. A huge insight will be gained by who gets the starting berths in the Wolfhounds game. While Healy needs game time, Cronin, White and Bent are all pushing for a starting role in Musgrave Park. Based on past injuries, Cronin would get the nod from The Ankle Tap to cover the loosehead position. Kilcoyne is injured at an unfortunate time, with Cronin seeming to have superseded him in Munster. Michael Bent’s ability to play both loose and tight might give him the edge if Joe is looking for versatility. Barring an injury crisis, it appears that those overlooked for this extended squad aren’t in with a shout, so that leaves Archer and Furlong most definitely on the outside looking in. Based on performances this season though, Furlong may yet force himself into the reckoning with an injury or two. (cue much touching of wood)
Shoe-ins: Healy, McGrath, Ross, Moore
Next in line: Cronin, Bent, White
Long shots: Kilcoyne, Furlong
No way José: Archer
Following all the uncertainty surrounding the fifth prop position, the selection of hookers appears to be a piece of cake. If fit, Rory Best starts, Seán Cronin sits on the bench and Richardt Strauss goes as cover. Rob Herring appears to have too much work to do to break this triumvirate, and Damien Varley is again injured at an unfortunate time, putting him at a distinct disadvantage. Duncan Casey, despite his accuracy out of touch, has been overlooked and The Ankle Tap can’t see him realistically supplanting the three whom we would place firmly in their seats on the plane.
Shoe-ins: Best, Cronin, Strauss
Next in line: Herring, Varley
Long shots: Casey
This is where things start to get interesting again. Paul O’Connell is on the plane. No doubt. Cut and shut. Devin Toner will accompany him as the other starting lock, all things going according to plan. Injuries are the name of the game after that though, as both Donnacha Ryan and Dan Tuohy have demonstrated they are international-quality locks when fit. The problem is both are injury-prone, and time is running out for them to demonstrate they are deserving of a spot. Mike McCarthy is ageing, but his workrate around the park is something Schmidt loves as he seeks balance. Dave Foley is having a decent, but not spectacular season so far and he still goes missing too often for our liking. Iain Henderson adds a dimension the others don’t, in that he is uber-athletic, impressively dynamic and he is also a fantastic ball-carrying option. His ability to double up as a blindside flanker gives him a big tick in our book, and we’re sure Joe sees things the same way.
Shoe-ins: O’Connell, Toner, Henderson
Next in line: Ryan, Tuohy, McCarthy
Long shots: Foley
Jamie Heaslip is on the plane, simple as. Peter O’Mahony should be too. The key question for this unit is can Seán O’Brien, the Tallow Tank, stay fit for any length of time? If so, he too will most certainly be heading to the World Cup. The competition behind these three is fierce though. Chris Henry put together a quietly impressive Six Nations in 2014, but what shape is he in following heart surgery? Rhys Ruddock performed admirably in Henry’s stead in November, and his ability to cover across the back row should stand to him. But then again, so can Dominic Ryan and Jack Conan. Conan especially has been in fantastic form of late. Jordi Murphy was on the bench for much of last season’s title winning team, but injuries have led to a dropping down the pecking order. Tommy O’Donnell has threatened to hit the heights of two seasons ago at points this season, but Schmidt appears to favour a more robust option on his bench and Henry is ahead of him in the “groundhog” stakes. Robbie Diack is another versatile option who is known to be admired by Schmidt, while Robin Copeland’s case hasn’t been aided by Axel’s preference for CJ Stander at Number 8 in Munster. Finally, Kevin McLaughlin has fallen off the radar due to a combination of a desperately unlucky run with injury and the subsequent emergence of the younger players seizing their chances at Leinster across the back row.
Shoe-ins: Heaslip, O’Mahony, O’Brien
Next in line: Henry, Ruddock
Long shots: Ryan, Diack, Murphy, O’Donnell, Conan
No way José: Copeland, McLaughlin
Conor Murray is part of the conversation for best 9 on the planet, and consequently he will be embarking for England and Wales in 7 months time. His kicking game, physicality and his underrated rugby nous are his strongpoints. One only has to cast an eye at the Tommy Bowe try against South Africa, which we discussed in great depth in a previous article, to realise that Murray will stand up and be counted when our country needs him most. The box kick he has in his armour is especially critical to Joe’s master plan for world domination. Eoin Reddan provides an uptempo option off the bench, although Kieran Marmion seems intent on wresting that spot in the match-day 23 away from the elder statesman. The Ankle Tap believes that Marmion’s club form this season with a resurgent Connacht, along with his uncanny knack of scoring vitally important tries, should see him supplant Reddan. Isaac Boss will remain on standby, while Luke McGrath will be setting his sights on the Leinster jersey first and foremost.
Shoe-ins: Murray, Reddan, Marmion
Next in line: Boss
Long shots: McGrath
The hopes of a nation are being placed firmly on Mr. Sexton’s shoulders. It will have to take a seismic event to keep him off the pitch come September. Standing by in the wings is Ian Madigan, and although Jimmy Gopperth starts at 10 for Leinster in their key encounters, Schmidt favours Madigan ahead of the other options, although his placekicking in the Ricoh Arena (4/8) puts this race for the backup right back in to the melting pot. Ian Keatley has a chance to put his hand up for selection, and he could yet force his way ahead of Madigan in the pecking order with a decent showing or two. His case is not helped by Munster’s early exit from the (Heineken) European Champions Cup, but with Sexton sidelined it appears he will get the chance to impress the Irish coaches over the next few weeks. Paddy Jackson is solid but unspectacular, while his goal-kicking leaves a lot to be desired and this is something which, when push comes to shove, will count against him. Jack Carty, despite a decent first season as Connacht No. 10, has too much ground to make up and JJ Hanrahan can’t force his way in to Axel’s plans, never mind Joe’s.
Next in line: Madigan, Keatley
No way José: Carty, Hanrahan
This is where things start to get interesting again, with versatility and knowledge of the “Schmidt system” becoming essential. Logic would decree that four centres will travel, with common sense stating that Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne will travel. Gordon D’Arcy mightn’t be as nailed on as everyone seems to think, but The Ankle Tap believes there to be some bite in the old dog yet despite a pretty average season so far with Leinster. Can Luke Marshall shake the concussion ghost that has dogged his progress? Is Stuart Olding big enough or physical enough to play at 12? Can Luke Fitzgerald stay fit for once? What about Noel Reid or Darren Cave, the forgotten man of Ulster Rugby? His hat-trick performance against Leicester has surely reignited the debate for who should play at 13 in the coming internationals. Much will be decided over the coming 2 months, and Schmidt’s hand may ultimately be forced by injury. Balance is key here, but The Ankle Tap reckons a fit Fitzgerald simply has to travel ahead of Marshall or Olding, as Madigan is capable of filling the “ball-playing 12” role. This is assuming D’Arcy travels, although Schmidt might go for Henshaw at 12 like he did against South Africa. More questions to be answered here than perhaps any other position.
Next in line: Payne, D’Arcy, Fitzgerald, Cave
Long shots: Olding, Marshall
No way José: Reid
Outside Backs (5)
Rob Kearney to travel, probably as the only recognised Fullback as both Henshaw and Payne, who we also see as travelling, have both played the position. Felix Jones may feel harshly done by, but Rob Kearney is simply indispensable. That leaves 4 spots to come from 7 players, an equation that simply doesn’t fit. Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble are the players vying for those spots. Bowe is going, as is Trimble, who had a renaissance year last season under Schmidt. Fergus McFadden is the ultimate Swiss Army Knife, and his willingness to put in the hard yards endears him in a big way to Schmidt. Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls would appear the long shots, although Earls especially could pick up steam with a run of fitness and form. Gilroy however appears to be permanently stuck down the pecking order both with province and country since he burst upon the international scene against Argentina in 2012. That leaves the last spot a toss-up between Dave Kearney and Simon Zebo. To put it simply, head says Kearney while heart says Zebo.
Shoe-ins: Rob Kearney, Bowe, Trimble
Next in line: McFadden, Kearney, Zebo
Long shots: Earls, Jones
No way José: Gilroy
By building a squad, one has to be ready to make the tough calls that follow, as more players put their hand up for selection. For too many years the national team picked itself, with those on the outside rarely given a look unless injury forced the coach’s hand. A quick glance to New Zealand will show that depth is the name of the game, with many quality players more than likely going to be left disappointed and kicking their heels when the All Blacks embark on their defence of the William Webb Ellis. This is the way it should be in Ireland too, with tight calls to be made in all positions and those who are on the periphery of the squad aren’t being picked to make up the numbers and provide cover, but can fit seamlessly into the system should one of the frontline players succumb to injury. Competitiveness within a squad drives it to greater heights than any opposition can. If a player knows he must perform every minute in training to be in with a shout, then the bar across the board is raised inch by inch, minute by minute. Schmidt has created and fostered this atmosphere and ambiance from the get-go, and Irish Rugby has improved proportionately as a result.
One thing is for certain, I don’t envy the choices that Joe will have to make come September.