Gerry Thornley: Ireland’s Rugby World Cup squad packed with talent, but pace could be lacking

Balanced selection offers plenty of experience along with 18 World Cup debutants

When Andy Farrell began as a head coach at the start of this World Cup cycle, he could hardly have envisaged that the squad would undergo such an amount of change by the time he finalised his 33-man Ireland squad this past week.

That evolution, however, meant that, save for the unfortunate Cian Healy, the composition of the squad that will fly out to its base in Tours next Thursday afternoon was already pretty much cast in stone even before that difficult final warm-up game against Samoa in the rain-sodden Stade Jean Dauger on Saturday night. And, on balance, that is probably a good sign.

Although the last squad to be announced for the tournament, it was also the most predictable – certainly more so than, say, South Africa’s, with their four scrumhalves. Or England’s, which has one specialist and now suspended number eight among 10 back-five forwards. Or, indeed, Australia’s, with Eddie Jones’ wild shredding of Dave Rennie’s three years of hard work seemingly intended as an investment in four years’ hence.

Whereas they were all 19-14 splits, true to type of a ticket that has never veered from a 5-3 split on the bench, Andy Farrell and his assistant coaches have gone with a more conventional-looking split of 18 forwards and 15 backs, akin to the All Blacks.


Furthermore, unlike the last two World Cups, Farrell hasn’t rolled the dice, which Joe Schmidt felt compelled to do, the 31-player maximum leading him to pick just two scrumhalves and ask Ian Madigan and Joey Carbery to act as additional cover at 9.

Instead, Farrell has picked three players in each specialist position, while using the versatility of Ryan Baird and Tadhg Beirne to accommodate nine back-five forwards, and that of Keith Earls and Jimmy O’Brien to also incorporate nine centres/outside backs, not to mention Jack Crowley’s ability to play at 10, 12 and 15.

Asked whether he was confident that he had all bases covered in an 18-15 split, Farrell smiled and said: “Confident? Of course I am. It’s about what we’ve got and players who can play in a few positions. We’ve got a few of those across the forward pack.”

“When you look at what we normally do when we pick a squad for a Six Nations or a tour, we normally pick in the region of 38 players,” he added, highlighting the reduced elbow room available to him and his assistants.

“It’s obvious that there’s quality, talented players missing out. It’s a dream of theirs to play in a World Cup, so it’s tough but at the same time we’ve got to do the right thing by the squad and pick a squad of 33, and make sure we get the right balance.

“We’re delighted with the squad. We think we have an extremely gifted squad and I also feel the balance is right.”

There’s also a nice balance between experience and freshness. Sexton, Conor Murray and Keith Earls will be competing in their fourth World Cup. Another four are preparing for their third, namely Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw and Peter O’Mahony, while Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier were all involved in Japan four years ago.

So while 15 players have World Cup experience of varying amounts, the remaining 18 players in Farrell’s squad will be making their World Cup debuts in France: forwards Ryan Baird, Finlay Bealham, Jeremy Loughman, Caelan Doris, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, Joe McCarthy, Tom O’Toole and Dan Sheehan and backs Ross Byrne, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Jamison Gibson-Park, Mack Hansen, Hugo Keenan, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe and Jimmy O’Brien

Admittedly, that is a little shy of the reigning champions and Pool B rivals South Africa, who have nine players competing in their third World Cup, and despite Handre Pollard, Lukhanyo Am and Lood de Jager being ruled out through injury (albeit all are on the Springboks’ standby list), Jacques Nienaber was still able to name 21 members of the squad that won South Africa’s third World Cup in just seven attempts four years ago.

Then again, the Springboks have the most settled side in the top tier of world rugby, and it did not look especially weary when eviscerating the All Blacks by a record margin in Twickenham last Friday night.

Despite losing Healy, there is a strong core of experience in the Irish squad, and there’s certainly been an infusion of new blood in the latter half of this World Cup cycle.

Sheehan, Kelleher, McCarthy, Doris and Baird are among a new wave of powerful, dynamic and athletic forwards to have come through the Leinster system, and in the case of McCarthy, he has been fast-tracked into this squad despite relatively scant game time at provincial level.

But Farrell and his assistants are generally vindicated when they back a hunch against the provincial pecking order – witness the key promotion of Jamison Gibson-Park – and likeMcCarthy, Crowley has also climbed the outhalf ladder fairly swiftly.

Perhaps the biggest boon has been the re-emergence of Lowe and the emergence of Keenan and, more recently, O’Brien and Hansen, whom Farrell wasted no time in fast-tracking into the Irish squad. And at the other end of the spectrum there is the feel-good story of ‘Oul Man Earlsy’s revival.

If there is one caveat, it is perhaps the lack of the sort of out-and-out pace that Ireland’s main rivals have. Admittedly, save for Robert Baloucoune there isn’t too much of it about in Irish rugby. It’s not really in the Irish sporting gene pool. Denis Hickie was very much the exception rather than the rule. The presence of wingers born in Australia and New Zealand in the frontline starting team may be evidence of that.

Perhaps too, the make-up and approach of this Irish side better reflects the country’s sporting abilities. For there’s also plenty of football smarts in this Irish team, and as a better fit for the nuanced attack, Farrell and co want their wingers to be multi-skilled, almost third centres.

Nonetheless, last Saturday in Bayonne, this team achieved a new Irish record of 13 successive wins thanks in large part to the calmness and leadership of Murray, Herring, Ryan and O’Mahony. That performance also underlined the importance of the Irish lineout and maul as a launch pad and in sucking the life out of opponents.

On a momentous weekend, averting a deflating defeat while being exposed to a hostile crowd, a wet night-time game, fired-up opposition and, eh, a Wayne Barnes in laissez-faire mood, may prove to have been beneficial. Certainly, the squad announcement was decidedly low-key compared with South Africa’s record win over New Zealand, Fiji beating England and France making their desired statement with a 41-17 win over Australia in the Stade de France.

“It’s certainly not irrelevant,” said Farrell of the weekend’s extraordinary results.

“But like I said the other day, you go back five or six weeks, New Zealand play South Africa and it was the same type of score, wasn’t it?” he said, referring to the All Blacks’ 35-20 win over South Africa in the Rugby Championship.

“Fiji beating England and us having such a tough game against Samoa, it all sets us up for what’s going to be an exciting tournament ahead.”

And it’s looming more sharply into view now.