Joe Schmidt prepares to wield World Cup axe with tough choices to make on Ireland squad
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt knows at least 20 of the names he'll be bringing to Japan for the World Cup but admits that finalising his 31-man squad for the tournament is among his biggest ever challenges.
Having cut Rory Scannell and Ultan Dillane last week, another three could go before the side travel to Portugal on Wednesday for a week-long warm weather training camp.
"I do not fancy it any day to be honest," he said of naming his squad after watching his side beat Italy 29-10 in Saturday's first warm-up fixture.
"Probably four years ago it was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever really had to put my mind to because I know the team and how much the players want to get to a World Cup.
"It is for Ireland probably more than some other teams, where we need to perform. This year from the very start of the year that has had to be the target. It means the players want to be at the top tier tournament in the world.
"I think I could probably name certainly 20, maybe a few more, but the coaching staff will meet after having had a look at the game and have a chat about probably who we think is putting their foot forward in the best possible manner and also look at guys who were maybe chasing their tail and need to demonstrate a little bit more.
"If we think we do need to trim the squad a little bit, as harsh as it will be, then collectively we will make those decisions.
"Individually I will hopefully have time to meet with players, if not then it is that phone call they do not want to receive and I do not want to really deliver."
Andrew Conway, Jean Kleyn and Chris Farrell were among the players who pressed their claim on Saturday in an otherwise uneventful game but the main talking point in the aftermath was unfortunately injuries.
Rob Herring, early, and Devin Toner, late, both hobbled off and were seen walking freely after the game, but Joey Carbery's ankle required the motorised stretcher and a scan, although there was a sense of relief that the Munster No.10 had not sustained a fracture.
A fit Carbery is key to Schmidt’s plans, as both back-up to starting No.10 Johnny Sexton and a full-back option in a panel that will likely see Rob Kearney as the only recognised player in that position.
Schmidt said afterwards that Sexton could have played despite the thumb problem that bothered him throughout pre-season and that the 2018 World Player of the Year would likely start against England in Twickenham in a little under two weeks.
“You always worry about injuries in these games, full stop, across the board,” Schmidt said.
“It’s so important to have a depth in your squad going to a World Cup. That’s been a bit of a four-year project for us and it’s certainly been a priority in this 12-month window where we’ve tried to aim up at the World Cup.
“Joey has not had the best of luck and sometimes you can have that run. Tadhg Furlong had that run for a couple of years where he didn’t play a lot and then he got into a rhythm and he’s fine. So, hopefully Joey will get through this ankle injury.
“Hopefully it’s not too bad and it might only be that he’s off his feet for a week and he’s back training and potentially still in the mix for England. If not for England, the Welsh game after that.”
Dave Kearney spoke to Carbery after the game.
“It’s never nice to see lads going off, the cart coming on especially, obviously where we are at this stage pre-World Cup,” he said.
“But chatting to Joey after, he says he isn’t feeling too bad, he didn’t hear any pops, which is good.”
The team for that England game will be named next Wednesday as the squad depart Portugal and Schmidt admitted that there will be a large number of changes from the side that beat Italy with a few certainties to travel perhaps held back for the final warm-ups against Wales.
“There’ll definitely be a number of changes,” he said. “I’m not sure there will be 15 but I’d say 10 will be a good starting point and it could be more.
“It will depend a little bit on how guys come through this and potentially what guys we want to see more of.
“If we’ve already made our decision on someone they might just go Wales, Wales and in, but you’ll certainly see a number of changes.”