Ulster's Darren Cave, Dan Tuohy and Craig Gilroy's World Cup hopes on the line after Ireland release for Leinster game
The World Cup hopes of Darren Cave, Dan Tuohy and Craig Gilroy are hanging by a thread as all three have been released from Ireland’s extended squad to play for Ulster in tonight’s opening pre-season friendly with Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.30pm).
Whether this is temporary leave from national involvement or a permanent departure which will rule all three out of Joe Schmidt’s plans for his 31-man World Cup squad — due to be named on August 31 — is still unclear.
As it stands, though, Cave may be the only one of the Ulster trio still harbouring any realistic hopes of making the final cut.
As for tonight, Ulster coach Neil Doak has named a 33-man panel — which will see newcomers Sam Windsor, Peter Browne and Paul Rowley all making their debuts — in a game which will see the starting side play one half and then rotate with most of the bench after the break.
Leinster are believed to be doing likewise, though they are now not thought to have World Cup hopeful Marty Moore involved with the prop now on course for inclusion in next weekend’s warm-up game against Wales in Dublin.
The release of Cave, Tuohy and Gilroy could also rule all three out of the clash with Wales, after which Schmidt will cut his squad down to its final number ahead of next month’s kick-off for ownership of the prestigious Webb Ellis trophy.
Cave, who earlier this month scored a try and generally impressed in Ireland’s 35-21 win over Wales in the first warm-up game at the Millennium Stadium, has already shown Schmidt his worth as potential midfield cover.
However, second row Tuohy did not greatly impress during his time on the park in the 28-22 victory over Scotland last week, while Gilroy has had no game-time at all in what is a hugely competitive area to make the wing berths in Schmidt’s squad.
Both Gilroy and Cave are in tonight’s starting side — with Cave at outside centre and Luke Marshall on the inside — while Tuohy is ready to be deployed for the second half.
The side will be skippered by Rob Herring while tight-head prop Wiehahn Herbst and Franco van der Merwe make a welcome return from the injuries which brought a premature end to their inputs for the business end of last season.
Flanker Willie Faloon is also back with his home province after a spell in Connacht and will feature in the second half, while 19-year-old winger Jacob Stockdale will want to make a big impression.
New signing Browne starts in the second row while fellow arrivals Windsor and Rowley are named on the extended bench.
Missing are Nick Williams, who remains suspended, while injuries have sidelined Callum Black and Rory Scholes. Roger Wilson and Lewis Stevenson are being rested.
“We’ve had our training sessions, but there’s nothing like the real thing and we’ll see how some of the young guys deal with the pressures of playing in front of a decent crowd and having to perform against opposition,” said Doak.
Leo Cullen, meanwhile, says Leinster fans should not have to adjust their expectations during his first season in charge as he promised to bring back the province’s traditional style of play.
The former captain has replaced Matt O’Connor as head coach after the Australian suffered the wrath of supporters for the brand of rugby his side played.
Kevin McLaughlin has been named captain for the duration of the World Cup and Jamie Heaslip is not guaranteed the armband when he returns. Cullen remains open to the prospect of adding a backs coach to his team, while he is in the market for a second-row to replace Kane Douglas.
And, while he conceded the season ahead would not be easy, he wants to see Leinster go back to their strengths.
“Definitely, I would see a Leinster way. A way we want to go and play the game,” he said.
“We want to be ambitious, to empower players to make decisions and to be a part of the process in how the team plays. Everything else gets judged on what 15 guys do on a weekend.”
Moore, who is unavailable for Leinster as he is with Ireland, has yet to play this season after coming back from shoulder surgery. He is in danger of losing out to Connacht’s Nathan White for a World Cup spot.