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Why John Cooney's early release was more telling than it seemed as versatility loses out for Ireland

John Cooney
John Cooney
On the plane: Jacob Stockdale is going to Japan
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Knowing what we do now, perhaps it was no surprise to see Joe Schmidt a little downcast after Saturday's win over Wales.

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In the aftermath of the confidence-jarring dismantling at the hands of England a week prior, there were calls for a selection shake-up. But in the media room of the Principality Stadium over the weekend, only Schmidt knew the magnitude of the calls he was planning in the next 48 hours.

Gone would be one of his most trusted players in Devin Toner, someone who had banked over 2,000 minutes in the engine room during this four-year cycle and appeared in 60 of his Tests as Ireland coach.

Also receiving the dreaded phone call were Kieran Marmion, a starter at scrum-half during wins over England and the All Blacks in the last two years, a player who had uprooted himself to keep the World Cup dream alive in Jordi Murphy, and Will Addison, his most versatile back who must have felt he had done just enough to squeeze his way onto the plane after returning from injury.

It's not for nothing that Schmidt said selecting these 31-men squads was the toughest part of the gig he will leave behind once his side's involvement in Japan comes to an end.

"It was a difficult thing right from the start to have the 45 that we had," said Schmidt after his initial hopes of keeping the squad under wraps until Sunday were thwarted only hours after breaking the bad news to his players.

"There were some guys who obviously had more experience and probably had more credit in the bank and were more established, and there were other guys who were trying to force their way into the group. Trying to get a balance of current form versus previous performance, it's always a very, very difficult conundrum.

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"It was one of those typical selection meetings where maybe 20-25 of the players are listed straight away, and it's those ones where you're trying to get balance where it's very difficult to choose between two players, and two players offer different things.

"You're trying then to narrow down and trying to get the best balance across the squad of the entire 31 because that's part of what you need to do. You've got to make sure you have cover that's immediate, even though you can replace players, there is obviously a big time delay in that."

Balance is the key. During Schmidt's first tilt at the World Cup the biggest call in the squad make-up was the decision to go with only two nines and allow Ian Madigan enough reps in training to serve as the party's notional third scrum-half option. Given that when Jared Payne was sidelined - or rather a week after Jared Payne was sidelined - the fact that it was Isaac Boss summoned across the water hinted at a mistake in the original composition.

And when Schmidt later admitted to getting the balance wrong, it was taken almost as red that the half-back blend was his source regret, especially given Madigan ended up finishing the tournament not as a reserve nine but the side's starting ten in the absence of Johnny Sexton.

Looking at yesterday's squad though, the spread of positions remains the same as four years ago - right down to just five half-backs and two scrum-halves.

Just where did Schmidt think he made his error in the past?

As pointed out by Chris Henry in today's Belfast Telegraph, the narrow selection calls have all went to those considered the more powerful athletes but there is another trend too.

Where once we thought versatility was king, Schmidt appears to have sought the right blend of specialists.

Whatever the talk of Garry Ringrose offering cover at every position from nine out, the greater variety of Addison essentially could not oust the straight centre Chris Farrell, while Murphy's ability to play in any of three back-row positions wasn't enough to tip the balance in his favour when it came to his own battle with Rhys Ruddock.

Jean Kleyn brings something no other Irish lock does - in Schmidt's words a "stock-standard tight-head lock" - and so went the hopes of Toner.

Perhaps given the exclusion of John Cooney, a perfect player to solve the half-back number crunch, before we even reached this stage was more telling than we thought.

With rotation for the games against Russia and Samoa surely a chief concern, this is a squad designed with a plug-in-and-play ethos rather than one created with myriad contingencies against emergency.

A horses for courses selection, those that found themselves trying to train across twin tracks have missed out.

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