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World Cup is in Schmidt's thoughts as he shapes Ireland tour squad

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt will be in Japan next week for the draw for the 2019 World Cup. The tournament may seem a distant prospect, but for Ireland's coach it is already looming into view.

Between now and the warm-ups, Ireland have 19 matches to ready themselves, just six more windows for the New Zealander to work ahead of the tournament that will ultimately define his time in charge.

The first three of those games will take place in the Lions' shadow next month. Ireland take on the United States in New Jersey, before playing Japan twice before their summer break and the squad is set to be named in and around the Guinness PRO12 semi-finals.

Since the 2015 World Cup, the head coach has been changing the guard incrementally; handing out 20 debuts and involving 51 players over the course of 17 games.

Deepening the squad has been a project ever since that Cardiff afternoon when Argentina ran an understrength Ireland ragged in the quarter-final and this tour is a chance to learn more about his squad.

Although he technically hadn't taken charge during the 2013 tour of the US and Canada, Schmidt used that window to begin building a leadership group.

Enda McNulty held workshops with a group of players who the staff had identified as potential leaders like Peter O'Mahony and Devin Toner, who would go on to play key roles in the subsequent Six Nations successes.

O'Mahony is one of 11 Lions who will miss the tour, with Rory Best's absence meaning they'll need a stand-in captain. If fit, vice-captain Jamie Heaslip is the most obvious, but who will join him?

BACK-THREE

One of the most competitive areas, Schmidt may well have his first-choice back-three fit and available.

Rob Kearney is currently injured, but Leinster say he could return in time to tour. A centrally contracted player with Lions experience, he may be required but given his season has been so disrupted by injury it might be prescient to give him June off and hope the rest allows him a clean run at next season.

Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo should travel, while Tiernan O'Halloran was an ever-present in the Six Nations squad who never saw any action.

If that five go, there may be no room for Adam Byrne, Darren Sweetnam, Rory O'Loughlin or Jacob Stockdale.

CENTRES

Garry Ringrose is a cert, but with Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne off wearing red jerseys there are a number of openings in midfield.

Last summer, Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall made gains on the tour of South Africa but they've struggled to build on those and are in the back-up category. Olding's latest injury could cap a ruined season.

Rory Scannell is almost certain to travel on the back of an impressive season with Munster and his involvement in the Six Nations panel, while his soon-to-be Munster team-mate Chris Farrell may get the nod to replace Henshaw's physicality although he hasn't played for Grenoble since March 11.

HALF-BACKS

With Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray off with the Lions, the half-back opening will allow some much-needed game-time for their understudies Paddy Jackson and Kieran Marmion.

Joey Carbery should get a chance to build on his November experience and provides another option at full-back. Schmidt may also be tempted to bring Ross Byrne after his impressive campaign.

The coach will be looking for Luke McGrath to cap his fine season with a strong tour, while he will also bring a third scrum-half. Ulster-bound Connacht No.9 John Cooney may well get the nod, although the Ireland coach recently referenced James Hart, who is signing for Munster.

FRONT-ROW

The first-choice front-row are in New Zealand, so there will be openings for others. John Ryan should get some valuable time under his belt in Tadhg Furlong's absence, while Finlay Bealham can come in from the cold having been muscled out by the Corkman this season. On the other side, Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne should go.

There isn't room for many bolters, but Schmidt may take a gamble and bring Andrew Porter ahead of James Cronin. The former U20 star is learning his trade on the tighthead side and three weeks with the big boys under the tutelage of Greg Feek may do him no harm.

SECOND-ROW

We may see another new face in the engine room if Ulster's Kieran Treadwell travels alongside some more experienced operators.

He faces competition from Leinster's Ross Molony.

Much depends on whether Schmidt picks Donnacha Ryan, but it seems more likely that Devin Toner and Quinn Roux will travel with Billy Holland joining them.

BACK-ROW

With three Lions gone, much depends on Heaslip's recovery from his back operation.

Given his age and body of work, it might be advisable to rest him but it seems more likely he'll lead the party and put himself in the frame for a late Lions call.

Rhys Ruddock's performance against Clermont, leadership qualities and ability to cover the second-row could earn him a spot, while Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan seem certain to join their fellow Leinstermen.

Jack O'Donoghue could complete the party, unless Schmidt wants to take a look at Sean Reidy again or bring Connacht's Sean O'Brien.

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