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Which Ulster players will make Joe Schmidt's final World Cup squad?

Fierce competition: Ulster’s Rory Best is one of the few Ireland players whose place in team looks safe
Fierce competition: Ulster’s Rory Best is one of the few Ireland players whose place in team looks safe
Joe Schmidt

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

At least 13 of the players named in Ireland's 44-man World Cup training squad will not make it to Japan and, almost certainly, someone who was left out by Joe Schmidt will end up playing a role.

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There are 15 weeks until the 31-man squad is named ahead of the panel's departure, with training getting going on June 16 and four warm-up games to negotiate in August and September. Injury is sadly inevitable.

The inclusion of uncapped Munster pair Jean Kleyn and Mike Haley and the absence of the likes of Ulster duo Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison as well as Quinn Roux and Tom Farrell has generated plenty of debate. According to IRFU performance director David Nucifora, Schmidt is already in 'Joe-mode' and his single-mindedness is demonstrated in his selection.

His decision will be influenced by his experience in 2015 when he brought 17 forwards and 14 backs. Then, he brought just two scrum-halves but the distance to Japan may force him to bring a third given how difficult it will be to bring cover out from home. The announcement was just a starting point, the jostling for position gets under way in earnest in the weeks to come.

Here is how the final squad could shape up:

Front-row

If we presume that the first-choice trio of captain Rory Best and props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong are safe, there is a genuine debate around the rest of the front-rows.

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At hooker, Sean Cronin was cruelly dropped during the Six Nations but responded well for Leinster, but he's in for a battle with Niall Scannell and Rob Herring.

Schmidt is likely to take just two loosehead props and Jack McGrath needs a huge summer to bridge the gap that has opened up between himself and Dave Kilcoyne.

On the other side of the scrum, John Ryan and Andrew Porter appear to have an edge on Finlay Bealham and all three cover the No 1 side of the scrum.

Marty Moore is perhaps unlucky, but depth-levels are much improved in the four years since Furlong came along as a World Cup bolter.

Back-five

Contrary to previous reports, Kleyn becomes eligible on August 8 and will be available for all four warm-up games and that puts him firmly in the frame to travel.

He's edged out fellow South African Roux and faces Tadhg Beirne and Ultan Dillane for the fourth lock slot alongside Iain Henderson, James Ryan and Devin Toner.

Beirne's capacity to cover the blindside may give him the edge and could see him put the squeeze on a back-row shorn of Dan Leavy and Seán O'Brien.

Having not played for Ireland since 2016, Tommy O'Donnell is back but he faces an uphill battle. Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier are nailed on, while Jack Conan's form is compelling. The battle between Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and O'Donnell will go to the wire.

Half-back

Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery will travel, but there are potentially three slots wide open.

Jamison Gibson-Park misses out despite his impending eligibility, meaning three men go for two slots at scrum-half. Kieran Marmion has Schmidt's trust, but John Cooney covers two positions and Leinster's Luke McGrath has been excellent.

At out-half, Jack Carty has moved in front of Ross Byrne by impressing during the Six Nations, but the Leinster man can't be discounted.

Centre

Schmidt has picked five centres, with McCloskey, Tom Farrell and Luke Marshall all excluded.

If he takes four, as he did in 2015, it looks like Rory Scannell has a big job on his hands to break into a quartet of Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell and Garry Ringose that looks well ahead.

Scannell's ability to cover out-half works in his favour, but he remains a long shot.

Back-three

Never has Simon Zebo's exile looked so glaring as his replacement at Munster, Haley, gets the nod despite a tough first season in red.

Addison is playing catch-up after his back surgery, while Dave Kearney gets in ahead of Darren Sweetnam and Adam Byrne while Tiernan O'Halloran is another who finds himself on the outside.

In the end, Schmidt may only bring four back-three players with Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour in a strong position as Henshaw also provides full-back cover.

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