Rugby Gerry Thornley: Cardiff the final audition as Schmidt sharpens knife

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Last week’s wounding defeat by England and the ensuing selection for today’s game against Wales in Cardiff suggests a few places in Ireland’s 31-man squad remain very much up for grabs.

Whereas most coaching tickets have already announced their World Cup squads or, in the case of Wales and Scotland will do so tomorrow and on Tuesday, Joe Schmidt will take World Rugby’s deadlines at their word.

Hence, as requested by the game’s governing body, Ireland will submit a 31-man squad to World Rugby – as much for administrative purposes – on Monday, subject to any injury issues arising from today’s game. But they will not confirm the squad until the day after meeting Wales in Dublin, Sunday, September 8th, which is World Rugby’s deadline for announcing squads publicly.

Plenty niggles at Schmidt, and uppermost among these is the restrictive nature of World Cup squads being limited to 31 players.

“I think it’s a very tight number that World Rugby limit you to. They talk about player welfare but we have a six-day turnaround into a five-day turnaround, and with 31 players that’s very complicated. I’m not saying that’s just tough for us. I think all the teams have tight turnarounds at stages,” he said.

It’s a more than reasonable point, and it’s not even that Schmidt is arguing the case for extending squads to the mid-30s.

Turnaround

“I think as a coach, you’d always love to have 34 but I think even just one more player would make a difference. I think 32 would make a difference because when you’ve got a five- or a four-day turnaround you know that you’ve got three specialist positions, hooker, scrumhalf and outhalf. If you take three hookers, which you are really bound to, you could take three scrumhalves and three outhalves but it’s very difficult so one of them is going to have to back up.

“Now he might start one and be on the bench on the other but then you get one injury to one of those players and say a guy gets replaced after 60 minutes, a guy gets an injury that’s going to keep him out for two weeks or say he gets a red card, you can’t replace him under the laws of World Rugby. So suddenly you’re squad size is 30 and you’ve only got one scrumhalf and he’s going to have to play the whole time.

“So try to solve those conundrums, if you could have 32 and have three scrumhalves and three outhalves and three hookers, plus you know you have to have five props because you can’t play a game of rugby without four qualified props. So as soon as you get a prop injury or prop suspension or even if a prop gets ill on the eve of a game you’ve got to have someone else who can play that position.

Rugby Rhys Ruddock and Bundee Aki in training. Ruddock’s physicality has invariably looked tailor-made for meetings with the Springboks. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Rhys Ruddock and Bundee Aki in training. Ruddock’s physicality has invariably looked tailor-made for meetings with the Springboks. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

“So when you add all those numbers up you’re starting to get skinny in the back and second rows and a little bit skinny in the back five so I think 32 would help teams for sure.”

Again, it’s a very reasonable, well-argued point. But, limited to 31 players, as Schmidt effectively admitted, Ireland will again quite likely restrict themselves to five halfbacks, with one of them at least theoretically doubling up by covering both 9 and 10.

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