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Are any Ireland players safe as Joe Schmidt ponders a World Cup shake-up after England hammering?

Thinking time: Joe Schmidt is deciding whether or not to freshen things up after Twickenham horror show
Thinking time: Joe Schmidt is deciding whether or not to freshen things up after Twickenham horror show
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The seeds of doubt have been sown - 57-15 will do that to you.

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Saturday's record-breaking loss to England in Twickenham may have little bearing on what happens when Ireland take on Scotland at the World Cup in Yokohama on September 22 but, such is the widespread concern that Joe Schmidt's men are a spent force, there is little point in denying the squad have heard the clamour.

In isolation, the result of a friendly, one where the side had one or two fewer games in legs left weary by a tough week in Portugal, would be rendered little more than academic. Few expected Ireland to win but fewer still would have considered the possibility of such a match.

Its nature and context, though, have raised plenty of questions about this squad's readiness to send Schmidt off on a high with, at the very least, a first World Cup semi-final.

To do that, they'd almost certainly need to negotiate their way past either the All Blacks or the Springboks in the last eight. It's a small sample size, but they have beaten one of the world's top five only once since the Grand Slam game in Twickenham.

That solitary win - in contrast to three defeats - was against none other than the All Blacks but as part of what was an otherwise uninspiring November with less than impressive wins over Argentina and the USA.

In the Six Nations, defeats to England and Wales overshadowed scrappy wins over Scotland, France and Italy. A step up is needed if another quarter-final exit is to be avoided.

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Ireland won't be as bad as they were on Saturday but there are so many aspects that need drastic improvement. The line-out always takes the brunt of the ire when things go awry - and no team will win a game let alone a tournament being as poor from touch as Ireland were in Twickenham - but their attack was blunt and their defensive organisation gave them the look of strangers rather than the settled team they have been over the past two years.

Since 2017 saw the retirements of Jamie Heaslip and Jared Payne, coupled with the Test debut of Jacob Stockdale, there has essentially seemed little debate in the mind of Schmidt over his strongest XV.

By and large injuries have negated the need to make a call on the three-into-two conundrum regarding Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose and occasional questions from the darker reaches of the internet on the likes of Peter O'Mahony, Rory Best and Rob Kearney have seemingly been given short shrift.

Amid the shell-shock of the shellacking in Twickenham, it was interesting, therefore, to hear Schmidt openly discuss whether it was time to freshen up the panel, perhaps even taking a leaf out of the book of his English counterpart Eddie Jones.

"We have to be open-minded," Schmidt said "I think Eddie's (Jones) selection is open-minded. He's put some guys in there who hadn't really been that involved in the England set-up.

"We'll be looking hard and long - and it's not going to be pleasant - at the footage and trying to piece together who has stood up and deserves to be in the 31 and who's under pressure."

Jones has, of course, never been one to shy away from an eye-catching selection call and one only has to cast an eye over his already announced panel to go to Japan for confirmation.

The previously uncapped Will Heinz was selected ahead of the likes of Danny Care and Ben Spencer. Ben Te'o lost out to Piers Francis, while Lewis Ludlam ensured Brad Shields would not be going to the tournament.

That's without even mentioning darling of the fans Danny Cipriani or the likes of Mike Brown, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton.

If Schmidt is looking for a similar seismic shuffle of personnel, who is safe? Is anyone?

The likes of Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and Keith Earls can still be seen as untouchable while O'Mahony should perhaps have enough credit in the bank despite the showing in Twickenham. Fitness concerns would seem like the only obstacle for Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Cian Healy.

The reality is that anyone beyond that seven, listening to Schmidt's warning on Saturday, may well be feeling vulnerable.

The external pressure on skipper Rory Best grows by the day but no hooker has really seized the chance to oust him in recent years. See back-up Sean Cronin's similar line-out struggles on Saturday as proof of that.

But Henshaw looks likely to bump either Ringrose or Aki from the team while Chris Farrell and Jack Conan are others whose stock has risen in absentia.

Andrew Conway, meanwhile, could rightly lay claim to being Ireland's most effective back-three player of late.

Injecting freshness, or even the threat of it, may be the only way to reinvigorate a side who have too many good players playing badly for there not to be something amiss.

Ireland's squad will be picked after this weekend's game in Wales before being confirmed after the same fixture comes to Dublin a week later. It now seems certain that the 31 names Ireland would have picked just a few months ago has shifted, possibly considerably.

Schmidt has never been one to panic. Will he be one for a shake-up?

Belfast Telegraph


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