Robert Kearney is not given to off-the-cuff comments; there’s a whole Twitter persona — with 86,500 followers! — that is built on that premise. So when, in the immediate aftermath of the Grand Slam victory against England on St Patrick’s Day 2018, he gave a brief interview to Sinead Kissane of Virgin TV in which he said “For the next 18 months, this group and our coaches will have our focus entirely on the World Cup…”, he revealed more than usual in a spot made mandatory by media demands.
Despite the difficulties encountered in this season’s Six Nations, when the Irish players assemble for departure in early September, they will be the first Irish squad travelling for a Rugby World Cup in expectation, rather than hope.
Selecting this World Cup squad, Joe Schmidt and his coaching team know they have a different task from that which any of their predecessors faced. They are selecting a squad to win the World Cup, not merely to take part in the competition. In the eight Rugby World Cup since 1987, of all the various Northern Hemisphere coaches over those 28 years, only the ubiquitous Sir Clive Woodward has discharged it successfully. The departing Schmidt and his colleagues know that this opportunity will not come around again, certainly not for this group, and that the World Cup holds a different place in sporting consciousness than any other rugby event.
Since 1999 and with advent of professionalism, the World Cup tournament has fallen at the same time in the season. September/October marks the beginning of the rugby year in the Northern Hemisphere, but the conclusion of the rugby year if you come from south of the equator. Accordingly, preparing for the competition is abnormal for the Northern Hemisphere nations. For them, the RWC does not come as a natural crescendo to 10 months of preparation, gradually progressing upwards in skills, intensity and teamwork. For the players whose home stage is the Six Nations tournament, the World Cup disturbs two seasons, the first in which you earn the opportunity to make your case for inclusion and the second in which you try to develop the necessary performance level, largely in the artificial environment of the training ground, to hit the ground running at the highest level of competition to be faced in every four-year cycle.
The consequence of this imbalance is that the SANZAAR Nations, New Zealand (3), South Africa (2) and Australia (2) have dominated the winners list with England the sole exception in their annus mirabilis of 2003. On the other hand, if you’re seeking scraps of comfort from the calendar, since the last RWC in 2015, this Ireland squad has only been beaten once by a Southern Hemisphere nation during October or November (NZ in November 2016 in Dublin) and we have beaten every one of our major opponents, home and away, over the past four years. This fact alone is one of this squad’s best credentials to be considered as a potential winner at RWC 2019.
The past three seasons, coupled with the experience of 2015, has ensured that these players and their management, now believe that they can plan their rugby destiny step-by-step. They planned to win the Grand Slam and the final 44 phases in their game against France demonstrated the depth of their confidence that they could achieve this. They planned to beat New Zealand in Dublin and the quality of their defensive resolve proved that they had identified the right game plan and tactics.
This group, coaches and management alike, have identified 2019 as a season dedicated to optimising their performance at the World Cup. The Series win in Australia was a step they considered important and whilst the 6N championship was not ignored, it was considered part of the journey rather than the ultimate peak to be scaled. Indeed, there are some among the group who consider that they have already started their RWC19 campaign with that victory over NZ in November. That win was a step along their chosen path and their win changed the balance of expectation when the two teams will next meet — possibly on the 2nd November 2019.
Official Squad Announcement
The Organising Committee of the Rugby World Cup 2019 require each country to submit a list of their 31-man squad by the 31st August.
Ireland has never been the last team to announce their squad, but never the first either. There is always substantial speculation as to who will make each squad but, nowadays, in the era of social media, there is rarely a surprise inclusion, but there are always surprising omissions.
Schmidt, and some of the Irish squad, will be familiar with the playing conditions ahead as Ireland traveled to tour Japan as recently as June 2017. Neither the destination, nor the travel, will not be an unknown challenge.
For World Cup 2019, the Irish squad will probably be announced by Joe Schmidt before the final warm-up game against Wales on 7th September in the Aviva. A few days after that, the squad will depart for Japan in preparation for their tournament opening game on Sunday 22nd September against Scotland in Yokohama.
Our Pool Opponents
Based on recent results and experience, our first game against Scotland is considered our most testing Pool game, with both teams very familiar with each other.
Hosts Japan have shown the capacity for World Cup upsets in the past. Russia and Samoa complete the group. The Russians will be strong, fit and abrasive, but not experienced enough to worry Ireland. The Samoans will however present a much stronger challenge and woe-betide Ireland if they aren’t up for a real physical hard-running and hard-hitting game. The World Cup is just the stage that this Samoan team will consider is where they should make their pitch to be included in World Rugby’s future Development Plans. However, Joe Schmidt will treat each opponent on the merits of their threat to Ireland.
Timing and Overall Schedule
Broadly speaking, Ireland should be happy with the timing of the games, which provide for adequate recovery and rest. In particular, the 14-day gap between the Japan and Samoa games will allow an almost complete team change for the game against Russia five days after facing Japan, but eight days before we face the physical Samoans.
Ireland will plan to finish top of Pool A. The Pool runners-up will face the winners of Pool B — probably New Zealand — in a quarter-final game in Tokyo on Saturday October 19th. Should Ireland top their Pool, their quarter-final will also be in Tokyo on October 20th — and the Springboks are the probable opponents, unless they can upset NZ in their Pool B game.
The gap from our 12th October game, until a quarter-final match, will be beneficial to our forwards, who by the manner of their play at present, take a lot of physical punishment in both attack and defence. The gaps between games also mean that should we need to fly in replacement players because of injury, they should arrive with at least 4/5 days for re-integration into the playing squad before a competitive match. Any replacement must be in Japan for 48 hrs before they can play.
The semi-finals will take place over the weekend of October 26th/27th – both in Yokohama – before the tournament Final at the same ground on November 2nd.
The Experience of Previous Winners – Age, Caps & Tournaments
When looking at any international rugby challenge, research on what New Zealand have done is rarely wasted. In this instance, research about World Cup winners England (2003) and South Africa (2007), also proved worthwhile. As with NZ in 2015, both England and South Africa won the trophy in another hemisphere, an important factor in relation to injury replacements within the tournament.
Until the 2015 World Cup in England, the mandated squad size was 30 players, as only one prop replacement was required. Since then the squad size has been established at 31.
There are lots of interesting discussion points when viewing the numbers from the four winning teams. Woodward’s English squad lived up to its moniker as “Dad’s Army” and had the oldest average age by some margin.
Dorien West (35), Jason Leonard (35), Martin Johnston (33) and Neil Back (34) were the oldest players and the latter three made significant contributions in their victory. Six of the 14 selected English backs were over the age of 30 and the overall average age of those backs was more than 28 years of age.
The New Zealand 2011 team was the youngest average age to win a Rugby World Cup.
However, the average number of test matches played among their squad members was a little greater than the 2003 English winners at almost 37 per player. Given that they had five players in single figures (Guildford, Dagg, SB Williams, Slade and Vito), the 1,172 caps total among the squad contained many very experienced players. The English squad totalled 1,079 caps.
The NZ 2015 squad, who successfully defended the RWC, had a grand total of 1,484 caps, by far the most experienced World Cup winning team. Within that 31-man squad they had three players with a grand total of only 6 caps (Milner-Skudder 2, Naholo 1 and Codie Taylor 3). At an average age of 28, they were a very experienced team by NZ standards, although still younger than Woodward’s squad in 2003. They also had 13 World Cup medal holders within the squad
The figures for the winning Springbok side of 2007 contain anomalies, largely because of the policy, instituted in 2002, that SA would only select players playing in South Africa. South African coach Jake White convinced SARFU to lift that ban in 2006 and thus regained several experienced players like Percy Montgomery, Jean de Villiers, CJ van der Linde and Bobbie Skinstad, all of whom missed the 2003 World Cup.
Whatever about having World Cup winners within your squad, having World Cup tournament experience is very beneficial. The figures for the English (25) and the 2015 NZ squads (23) each with a total of more than 20 RWC tournaments shared between their members, demonstrates the importance of prior RWC experience. Our ‘selected’ Irish squad totals 22 RWC tournaments, below those two front runners, but ahead of both South Africa (14) and 2011 NZ (18).
Squad Composition – What are the Options?
It is when you arrive at the actual composition of the squad that the hard decisions start. Now, the theoretical analysis is over, “No more Mr. Nice Guy” as one of the Irish coaching team in 2011 summarised the process of the final selection discussions for a World Cup.
For the Rugby World Cup in Japan, the Rules are broadly unchanged since 2015 regarding squad selection.
- Each Country may register a squad of 31 identified players by 1st September 2019;
- Each Country must nominate a 23-man squad 36 hours before each game commences, with
- Two players registered to play LHP, one of whom must start the game;
- Two players registered to play THP, one of whom must start the game;
- Two players registered to play hooker, one of whom must start the game.
A player may be replaced for medical, or compassionate, reasons, but is unable to return to the squad. Any replacement players have an enforced stand-down period of 48 hours before they can play.
There are no further positional restrictions and those above are deemed to be for player safety.
However, despite there being no formal stipulations for other than the front-row players, almost every RWC squad selected in the past four tournaments, by every nation, has had:
- Three hookers and
- Three scrum-halves.
The table below illustrates the composition of four winning RWC squads and our selected Irish squad. The 2003 English squad uniquely has only 30 players included, in accordance with the Competition Rules of the time (although Simon Shaw joined the squad to replace Danny Grewcock during the tournament). South Africa added a prop forward, Jannie du Plessis to replace BJ Botha. New Zealand famously had squad alterations in their home tournament in 2011, when they lost three out-halves during the tournament.
Hooker: Each Team must name two hookers in their match-day squad. Is it worth taking a risk on losing one of them in pre-match warm-up, or the last training session before a game?
Prop-forward: Once again, you must name two specialist props in both positions in your match-day squad. Can you assume that you won’t lose one of these four players to pre-match injury? Conversely, will any top nation play any front-row player for a full 80 minutes without substitution? On average, throughout the Championship of 2018 and the Six Nations of 2019, every team had replaced both prop-forwards by the 58th minute.
Second-row: Only two required in match-day squad and teams like NZ and France have often used a specialist No. 6 to substitute into the second-row late in a game. Is three enough cover in a squad or can you afford four?
Back-row: Statistically the most attritional position on the team, each match-day squad in professional rugby will generally include at least one specialist replacement, in addition to the three starters. Is five sufficient to cover the tactical options for the entire competition? NZ (2015) and England (2003) both included six. The NZ solution is to take six, if each player is good enough to warrant selection.
Scrum-half: Almost every 23-man match-day squad in modern rugby includes two specialist scrum-halves. Covering for the risk of injury surely requires three players within the tournament squad, although Ireland travelled with only two (Murray and Reddan) in 2015.
Out-half: Many would argue that most competitive international teams have a number of backs who can cover as third choice out-half. Mike Catt for England (2003) springs to mind immediately as do Steyn and Pienaar for South Africa in 2007 and Parra for France. Can Ireland afford the risk that South Africa took in 2007 and do we have the player to make this option viable?
Midfield: Many coaches consider that this is the position in which they can, and regularly do, alter the playing strategy by player substitution. England won their World Cup with just three named centres as Mike Catt moved sideways during the tournament.
Conversely, South Africa named five in their cup-winning squad, but Olivier and Julies had minimal involvement, despite the loss of Jean de Villiers to injury during the tournament. Four is probably the maximum you need, unless there is particular versatility.
Back Three: Of our four cup-winning squads, only NZ in 2015 selected four back-three players and two of them had only three caps between them (Milner-Skudder had one, Naholo just one)! This is the area in teams where versatility comes most into play and the axiom of “getting your best players on the pitch” has the greatest application. Our Irish selection decides to go with only four players and adds our extra selection at the other end of the team, among the props. Ultimately, our decision came down to a judgement based on just how physical is the Irish playing style and the consequent importance of minimising the attritional impact on those front-five forwards.
One of the more surprising aspects thrown up by this analysis is just how similar is the composition of each of the squads. Undoubtedly, there are differences, but the more one examines the underlying selections, the greater is the recognition how much each Head Coach is constrained, even as he tries to ensure the inclusion of his in-form and best players.
From interviews, given years after each of their triumphs, it is clear that each winning coach perceived before their victorious tournaments that they had weaknesses. However, the manner in which each ensured that these shortcomings remained, relatively, hidden throughout their competition, is testament to why they were successful.
In positional composition, the Irish squad which we have selected, bears closest resemblance to the SA squad of 2007. Overall, there are small differences between the positional make-up of both squads. The SA team of 2007 had four prop forwards, two out-halves and five centres. The Irish squad has five props, two out-halves but only four centres.
What most influences the Selection?
There are obviously a wide range of factors involved in reaching the ideal composition. Some of those uppermost in the mind of the coaches include:
- Injuries in pre-match warm-ups (think Jamie Heaslip v England in 6N 2017, or Robbie Henshaw v Argentina Nov 2018);
- The need to have a place-kicker with high % success on the pitch at all times;
- Who has lost form, and conversely, who has just hit the form of his career?;
- Who has returned from long-term injuries and may be a risk of re-occurrence;
- Vulnerability created by a high penalty concession — notably at scrums or breakdown;
- The ideal circumstance of having a captain who has the capacity to influence referees;
- The significance of turnover-winning forwards;
- The experience of playing without a home crowd which will the influence the referee;
- The importance of line-out throwing accuracy and the ability to win opposition ball;
Back-three vulnerability, or strengths, for aerial attack/defence;
- The importance of half-backs as directors of play.
- The last point expands to include the importance of leaders in each unit of the team who are capable of directing and influencing the game under all sorts of challenging circumstances. There are probably another half-dozen aspects that Joe Schmidt and his fellow Irish coaches consider are critical in selecting a World Cup squad. It is the relative importance of each that will decide just who will be selected.
Our Selection and Why
Firstly, the key parameters:
- The squad selected assumes the proven match fitness of each player;
- The importance that Schmidt places on the detailed preparation of his players suggests that his inclusion of Kleyn will lead to his selection as an essential player for this squad and the only new cap;
- No player currently in contract outside Ireland has been considered. This may be contentious as it is possible that the Head Coach could, in the event of a series of injuries, call up any player eligible for Ireland;
- The initial 44-man RWC squad includes the majority of the original Six Nations squad (38 players), but Schmidt name-checked 24 others in the that pre-6N press briefing — even Kleyn. Despite recent eligibility, there was no room in the enlarged squad for Jamison Gibson-Park, but Will Addison’s (the 45th squad member) late inclusion on recovery for injury suits our selection;
One player who will miss out, despite experience and the level of his play at the peak of his powers is Sean O’Brien. Although he has been limited to just 53 Irish caps since his debut in 2009 (Ireland has played almost 100 test matches since his first cap), O’Brien has also played Test Matches on two successful Lions Tours and would be attending his third World Cup. His past three seasons have been dominated by injuries but, as evidenced by his Lions Tour in 2017, at his best the 31-year-old Tullow farmer could have played five tough games in 6 weeks. The suspicion still nags that the Lions tour cost O’Brien his tilt at this World Cup. His loss, aggregated with those of Jamie Heaslip (95 caps and, at 35, just a year older than NZ captain and No. 8 Kieran Read) and Dan Leavy (25) rob Ireland of a complete back-row, which might prove to be a critical weakness in their quest for success.
Rory Best as captain and first-choice hooker has proved that his age is not a barrier to performance to his highest standards. His display against NZ in November 2019 was followed up by excellent performances for Ulster in hard-fought European and interprovincial games against quality opponents.
Sean Cronin is among the most dynamic replacements in any position in world rugby. His contributions complement the presence of his captain as Ireland’s first-choice and his experience now ensures that his throwing is much less a weakness than before.
Munster’s Niall Scannell gets our third Hooking place, but this will be among the closest contests in selection. Rob Herring, could grab the spot if he shows very good form over the coming months.
Our squad includes five props in total but only two on the loose-head side. Ireland’s two Lions, Cian Healy and Jack McGrath, are our selections. Dave Kilcoyne has been omitted, despite his 6N selections by Schmidt, solely because of McGrath’s higher quality scrummaging and the regularity with which Kilcoyne collects penalties at scrum-time. The opinion of Greg Feek will have a major say with these selections.
We’ve picked three THPs and two selections were almost automatic. Tadhg Furlong and John Ryan are now familiar faces in every Irish squad. Andrew Porter gets our third slot but not without vulnerability to a good show of form from Finlay Bealham, an experienced player just entering the prime of his propping life. We expected Marty Moore to make the training squad after a fine season with Ulster. His absence is a real affirmation of the quality of the competition.
The four players selected have varied talents and a huge array of skills. Toner, Henderson and Ryan will be automatic selections for many Irish fans. The demands of the modern game have raised the bar for second rows more than any other position, and all three could be included in any match-day squad of 23 during the World Cup. Tadhg Beirne may be a controversial omission, but Jean Kleyn gets the fourth spot ahead of his Munster colleague. Whatever front-five Ireland select in every game in this World Cup must be capable of ensuring equality, or dominance, at scrum and maul. At 6’6” and 113kg and with very limited exposure during the 6 Nations, neither Beirne’s skillset, or experience, compensates sufficiently for his, relative, lack of size and raw strength, the two most obvious attributes of Kleyn (6’8” and 121Kg). Kleyn’s inclusion in the Irish Training Camp even before his formal eligibility period was completed suggests that Schmidt has a clear view that the Irish pack may need his size, strength and ‘enforcer’ style for this World Cup. Beirne might still find a place in the final squad as an option at No. 6, playing in a style like the Argentinian Matera, but we don’t think he will be selected as a second row this time around.
For almost three years, the worry was that selection of our back-row in a World Cup squad would prove a nightmare. However, the casualty list of the last year has greatly narrowed the field. The loss of O’Brien and Leavy, injuries to O’Donnell, and the absence of development in the carrying game of O’Mahony have certainly reduced the selection logjam. Van der Flier, O’Mahony and Stander, are our automatic picks, joined by Ruddock and Conan, but with the proviso that Beirne could do an excellent job at No. 6 if selected. No Murphy, O’Donnell or O’Donoghue, all talented and well capable of contributing to the Irish cause. Any one of them could join those selected, in the event of loss of form, or injury, to any of the five selected. Ruddock gets the nod because of his versatility (Schmidt selected him at No. 7 to play S. Africa) and captaincy experience — a clear indication he is trusted by the coaches — and his previous RWC experience in 2015. Definitely a shortage of a pure No. 7, but you can’t pick what you don’t have.
Around about the end of September, there was genuine concern about the Irish strength at scrum-half, because of the rumoured injury-status of Conor Murray. The displays of his competitors, including the emergence of Connacht’s Caolin Blade to the Irish 6N squad, now leaves Ireland with four clear alternatives to support Conor Murray. We have nominated Kieran Marmion and John Cooney, the latter because he can play out-half and place kick, both skills which might be called on against Russia or Samoa. Luke McGrath’s serious knee injury is ill-timed and Caolin Blade might continue his outstanding run of form, so Cooney is by no means a certainty. The absence of Gibson-Park from the squad is again indicative of the quality of competition in this position.
Our first and second choices were simple and Sexton and Carbery now seems to run off the tongue with ease. We’ve only selected two out-halves as we believe a third player might not start a game in the tournament and we would see John Cooney as having the capacity to fill the bench slot against say Russia and Samoa, without risking Sexton in these physical games. Jack Carty and Ross Byrne miss out but either may have a run of form which demands selection and both would be fine replacements in the event of injury.
Ireland has three outstanding international centres on present form. Henshaw, Aki and Ringrose can mix and match between the 12 and 13 roles and, in truth, that might just be enough for all of our games. However, versatility combined with elusive pace, are a combination that is rare and Will Addison’s contributions for Ireland and Ulster since October last have convinced us that he might find a way to selection in any position from 11-15 during a World Cup competition. His late inclusion in the squad after recovery from injury, provides his opportunity to claim a place in this squad. However, injury to any of these or big performances, from Chris Farrell or left-footed Rory Scannell, could see either force a way through the selection process.
This area presented the toughest challenge because we consider that the three positions are locked down by the current incumbents Robert Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale. We had to decide a final balance in the squad and the ultimate toss-up was between an extra centre or a fifth back-three player. Our final call was made by considering which of the contenders could be match-winners on their own. On that basis alone, we chose to include both Andy Conway and Jordan Larmour, both of whom have demonstrated that ability.
This squad has been selected and refined on almost a weekly basis since the beginning of December 2018. Following the series win in Australia in June 2018, complemented by the defeat of New Zealand in November 2018, we compiled a long list of almost 50 players and followed their progress weekly, noting in particular relevant comments by Joe Schmidt, or any of his national coaches.
The one absentee from that first squad was Jean Kleyn, but by the end of the Six Nations campaign, we were fairly convinced that if Schmidt was going to select Beirne in the second row for RWC 2019, he would have given him more game time at international level, during a campaign in which Ireland were less than ultra-competitive.
The three other positions of intrigue over the past six months have been the second slot at loose-head prop, the third position at tight-head prop and the reserve full-back position. In each case, there is no concern about the first choice incumbents, but our World Cup history proves that those in the back-up positions may be just as vital. Jack McGrath’s loss of form was not unique in a post-Lions season, but in his case it continued for 18 months and may well have contributed to his decision to move provinces next season. Greg Feek’s absences in Japan during 2018-19 may not assisted McGrath, but we remain convinced he is a world-class loose head prop that Ireland cannot afford to leave at home.
Andrew Porter arrived to international rugby like a galactic missile and some forecast he would suffer “second-season syndrome”. Some injudicious penalties, a loss of focus in important scrums, coupled with an inability to make Leinster’s number 3 jersey his own in Furlong’s absence may have indicated that the necessary attention to detail was not always present. Once again, the occasional absence of Feek around the Irish scrumming scene may not have been beneficial. John Ryan is a proven international prop, who like Porter has experience of playing at loose head prop. Both will be key players in this squad.
Finally, Robert Kearney has not only defied the many who have called for his retirement over the past two years, he continues to perform the essential duties of an international full-back better than any other player in the country. Carbery, Henshaw, Larmour and Addison have all seen time in this slot over the past two seasons and whilst none has performed to Kearney’s exalted standards, each has elements in their game which are beneficial to Ireland’s counter-attacking potential. At this point, Addison appears the one player who might cover this position in a manner which would satisfy Schmidt, regardless of the opposition. His return from injury will give the coach the opportunity to assess this opinion before he makes his final squad selection.
Since 1987, Ireland has never had a squad capable of winning the World Cup. The final weeks of preparation for Japan 2019 should see this group reassert their reputation as genuine contenders, at least in the eyes of Irish fans. The players and management have earned the right to be considered as real contenders and to be supported to the hilt in their attempt to pull off the impossible. So 頑張って (“Ganbatte” in romaji) — “Go and try hard”.
Ages are taken as at 1st September 2019; Number of caps based on assumptions for 2019.
Ireland RWC Squad 2019 (17/14)
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