Ireland 2023 Rugby World Cup Squad selected…

Andy Farrell has announced his 42 man training squad for the world cup, and true to form, has not been afraid to make some hard choices. The dominant theme is one of loyalty to the players who have enabled Ireland win a Grand Slam and maintain their place at the top of the world rankings.

I had expected Munster’s outstanding form in recent weeks to have more of an impact, but in the event some of Munster’s outstanding performers – Haley, Daly, Frisch, Loughman, Barron, Archer, Kleyn, and Hodnett – man of the match in the final, have all missed out. Players like Lowry, Baloucoune, Larmour, Hume, Doak, Timoney, Penny, and Harry Byrne have also missed out, so it is not only Munster players who will be feeling disappointed.

I don’t think there has ever been so much competition for an extended squad before. Only four uncapped players – Nash, Osborne, Frawley and Stewart – make the squad for their versatility or potential, with Earls joining Sexton for their last hurrah. There is thus a nod to the future as well an appreciation of past achievement: a good mix of experience and potential.

The most extraordinary omission, in my view, is the lack of a second specialist 7 in the squad as back-up to Van der Flier. Timoney, Penny, and Hodnett have all missed out. This fuels my suspicion that Farrell is planning to counter the sheer size of South African and French packs by employing both Doris and Conan or even Coombes in the back row, with O’Mahoney a super-sub covering all back row positions.

The Springboks have frequently employed Pieter Steph du Toit, a 6’ 7” 19 stone lock at 7. Doris has covered 7 for Leinster, and Baird has the pace and athleticism to do so, so perhaps Farrell feels he can afford to do without a second specialist 7, even in the extended training squad. Finger’s crossed Van Der Flier doesn’t get injured.

So, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the squad when you measure them against the standards required to be contention to win the World Cup? Our weaknesses at prop have been mitigated to some degree by the rise of Bealham and O’Toole although Furlong has yet to recover his best form, and depth at loose head remains a concern. We don’t have a monster lock like Will Skelton, but Ryan and Beirne are in excellent form and players like Baird, Henderson, or McCarthy could make up for size with athleticism and work rate.

Farrell’s investment in Casey has paid off and Murray’s form has improved. Ross Byrne and Crowley’s form has allayed fears about back-up to Sexton, and we have a fine stock of centres. We lack outstanding pace, elusiveness, or physicality on the wings, but the work rate of Hansen, Lowe, and O’Brien et al seems to mean that this does not matter all that much. Keenan has become a contender for best 15 in the world.

In general, our first XV players have continued to improve and most now have genuine claims to be regarded as world class. But perhaps of most significance in the context of a World Cup is that our back-up players have also been improving steadily in most positions, which means Farrell will be able to rotate his squad to avoid injury and burnout and increase our chances of progressing in the competition.

Past Irish world cup squads have become undone when half a dozen front liners have been over-played or injured. The fears of an injury to a few of Sexton, Furlong, Sheehan, Ryan, Beirne, Doris, Conan, Van Der Flier, Gibson-Park, Henshaw, Ringrose, Hansen, Lowe or Keenan undermining the chances of the team in crunch matches are therefore much reduced.

We have an awful draw in the World cup, playing Tonga (including several ex-All Black and Australian test players), South Africa, Scotland and (if we qualify) New Zealand or France at home in quick succession, followed by a semi-final and final if we get there. Leinster have just shown the difficulty of playing 5 crunch matches in quick succession even with a strong squad.

We will need some more of our current squad players to step up and become world class if we are to have a chance of winning the world cup. Our first XV is still very readily identifiable and we need our back-up players to close the gap still further. There is rarely much controversy about the selection of the Irish team, and that is not a particularly healthy position to be in. In an ideal world there should be controversy and debate over every place in the team with no established players sure of their place.

My own view is that despite possibly being the best team, we are unlikely to win the World Cup. Playing a supercharged Tonga, South Africa, and an improving Scotland is a significant challenge in itself, and, even if we qualify, we will be facing France at home or the All Blacks in the quarter final followed in quick succession by a semi final and final if we keep winning.

We need our team to be in absolutely peak form to win those sort of matches and they are unlikely to be able to sustain that for seven weeks in a row even if we don’t suffer multiple injuries, which in my view is quite likely given the physicality of those matches. Leinster’s losses are a cautionary tale in that regard, even if Munster’s win removes some of the South African mystique of superior physicality.

It is frankly ridiculous that three of the World’s top five teams are in one group, with the other two lined up to meet the winners in the quarter finals. If you were a conspiracy theorist you would suspect that World Rugby deliberately held the draw ridiculously early when the Irish rugby team were at a low ebb.

We weren’t done any favours during the World Cup host nation selection process either. You would have thought that World Rugby would seek to extend the range of rugby playing nations by nominating a new host country every time. Suspicions of corruption behind the French bid have not been allayed by revelations of corruption since.

I have listed the players in Farrell’s extended training squad in ordinary type face below with the first named the likely starter in the first choice team. There has been remarkably little change from what I predicted here a couple of weeks ago. My favourites for the final 33 Man squad are listed in bold. Possibilities on the fringes who were not selected but who may make it in the event of injuries are listed in italics. Players who have dropped out of contention due to injury, form, movement abroad, or past selectorial preference have been stricken out.

1. Porter, Healy, Kilcoyne, Loughman, Milne, Cronin

2. Sheehan, Kelleher, Herring, Tom Stewart, Barron, Heffernan

3. Furlong, Bealham, O’Toole, Archer, Salanoa, Moore, Ryan

4. Ryan, Henderson, Treadwell, Kleyn, Thornbury

5. Beirne, Baird, McCarthy, Murray, Ahern

6. O’Mahony, Prendergast,

7. Van der Flier, Timoney, Hodnett, Penny, O’Donoghue, Kendellen, Oliver, Connors

8. Doris, Conan, Coombes, Deegan

9. Gibson-Park, Casey, Murray, Blade, Doak, McGrath, Marmion, Cooney!

10. Sexton, Ross Byrne, Crowley, Frawley, Harry Byrne, Carbery,

11. Lowe, Earls, Stockdale, Daly

12. Henshaw, Aki, McCloskey

13. Ringrose, Osborne, Frisch, Hume

14. Hansen, Nash, Larmour, Baloucoune

15. Keenan, O’Brien, Haley, Lowry, Conway

 


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