No Irish coach has ever been in a stronger position six months out from a World Cup, but if we know one thing about Andy Farrell it is that he won’t be resting on his laurels.
The head coach has never made any secret about his overarching mission of bursting through Ireland’s traditional glass ceiling and winning the World Cup. The draw may be ominous, but the coach has a ‘no-excuse’ mentality and that should serve him well in France.
Before then, he faces a few months of watching on as his players look to catch his eye at the end of the club season.
In July, he’ll assemble a large group for pre-season training before the friendlies against Italy, England and Samoa will help him whittle the panel down to the 33 that will travel to France.
He has two more players to play with than Joe Schmidt did in 2015 and ’19, with concerns over the growing number of red cards and the longer stand-down period for concussions convincing World Rugby to extend the squad numbers.
He used 32 players during the Six Nations and had more than 40 in his training camp, while there are other options who missed out through injury or were left at their provinces.
For the players on the outside looking in at the celebrations at the Aviva Stadium last weekend, it must seem like an increasingly difficult mission.
History tells us that things can change. Conor Murray’s late charge in 2011 is one example of a player coming from relative obscurity, while few envisaged Schmidt axing Devin Toner for Jean Kleyn during the 2019 Six Nations.
Injury will be a factor, while form in pre-season is another key facet of Farrell’s decision-making process.
Even at this stage, there is a group of around 20 who are guaranteed to go but there are still big decisions to be made along the way for Farrell.
ON THE PLANE
Injury permitting, Johnny Sexton will lead the squad to his final World Cup and the team that beat New Zealand and secured the Grand Slam will also be on board.
Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen and James Lowe are locked in, while Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw will go. Jamison-Gibson Park is definitely on his way, while up front they’ll bring Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Rónan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong. James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne are certs, while Peter O’Mahony, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier are also nailed on to travel.
IN THE EXECUTIVE LOUNGE
It’s almost impossible to imagine the Ireland squad travelling to France without Bundee Aki.
That makes life awkward for Stuart McCloskey, who could be squeezed out by the versatility of Jimmy O’Brien who can play in a range of positions and Ciarán Frawley or Jack Crowley who can cover at 10, 12 and 15.
O’Brien is expected to travel given he’s the second-choice full-back and an option at wing and centre, while Conor Murray will almost certainly go as the second-choice No 9. Indeed, Farrell has consistently selected the same three scrum-halves for most of his reign, so Craig Casey can expect to travel too.
Up front, Cian Healy’s Murrayfield cameo booked his spot and Dave Kilcoyne is an experienced third option at loosehead.
While Tom Stewart has been an impressive newcomer for Ulster, Rob Herring has been a consistently excellent presence for Ireland during this cycle.
At second-row, there are some decisions to make but it seems clear that Ryan Baird’s stock is rising after he finished the Six Nations like a train. Baird’s performances at No 6 have been eye-catching for Leinster.
ANXIOUS AT CHECK-IN
We’ve named 24 players so far and so it is the remaining nine places where the squeeze will come on.
Some very good players are facing a nervy couple of months ahead as they do their utmost to turn Farrell’s head.
We’ll begin with the squad stalwarts and centrally contracted options Keith Earls and Iain Henderson, both of whom have had their seasons wrecked by injury.
Earls last played for Ireland in the opening Test of the series win over New Zealand and, while he was named in the Six Nations squad, the veteran winger – who is Ireland’s all-time World Cup try-scorer – didn’t get the nod in the opening games and then missed the rest through injuries.
Farrell values Earls’ influence highly and he was a constant presence on the Irish touchline through the Six Nations.
If he can get fit and finish the season well, before getting one last pre-season into his legs there’s a chance he could go as the final back-three player.
He may not have a big role on the pitch, but he’s hugely popular and the consummate professional who will be a diligent trainer throughout.
Earls is vying with Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale to make the plane, while Andrew Conway – who hasn’t played a minute this season – could still come into the reckoning if he overcomes his knee issue.
Robert Baloucoune offers something different and played in November. Shane Daly and Calvin Nash have been in squads this season, while Mike Lowry was capped at full-back last year went to New Zealand.
Larmour has been in all of Farrell’s squads when fit, but hasn’t played for Ireland since the win over Japan in July 2021; the day Stockdale won his last cap.
They were both capped at full-back during the early days of Farrell’s tenure, but they’re a long way back.
As for Henderson, he’s out injured again and there are fears in Ulster that he might not play again.
The skipper is reportedly considering an offer from Japan and, while he’s been a key man for Ireland in the last few years, they’ve managed to win plenty without him in the last year.
He has enough credit in the bank to get into the squad if fit, but his absence should see Kieran Treadwell take a central role for Ulster in the coming weeks.
If he performs well, the younger option could force Farrell’s hand.
Joe McCarthy’s injury has come at the worst possible time and may derail his bid this time around.
Based on recent form, Ross Byrne must be confident of making the plane. A replacement in four games and a starter in Rome, Sexton’s injury offers him a chance.
RACING THROUGH TERMINAL
Tighthead props Finlay Bealham and Tom O’Toole can also be confident of travelling, but beware a late charge from John Ryan who is lining up on a weekly basis for the Chiefs and returns to Munster in pre-season.
The Ireland coaches have been impressed with the Corkman who should make the squad, although he’s a job on his hands to displace the other pair who played well in the Six Nations.
The identity of the third out-half has been a key talking point throughout Farrell’s time in charge and it remains wide open.
He’s capped seven fly-halves in 35 games, but it could be a player who has yet to play at senior level who makes the plane.
With injuries in the Leinster midfield, Frawley has the platform to prove his worth as a utility back who has started three Ireland ‘A’ games at No 10 for Farrell against high-calibre opposition.
His injury stalled his momentum in November and handed the initiative to Jack Crowley who started against Australia and came off the bench against Italy. The Munster man is a big talent who could easily force his own way in, but Frawley may just have the edge.
If he responds well to being omitted in the next few months, then Joey Carbery can still play a role and Farrell may well be tempted to bring his most experienced option.
Sexton’s injury may open the door to Harry Byrne, but it feels like he’s coming from too far back.
Unless he brings five second-rows including Beirne and Baird who can cover No 6, there are two back-row slots up for grabs and it looks like a battle between Nick Timoney, Gavin Coombes and Cian Prendergast.
Prendergast seemed to be ahead of Coombes during the Six Nations while Timoney offers cover for Van der Flier. Coombes must blow the door down with Munster. Max Deegan is another whom Farrell rates, but it’s hard to see where his games can come at Leinster.
Regardless of how selection goes, Ireland will be leaving some quality players behind next autumn.
McCloskey is perhaps set to be the unluckiest of all given his role in the Slam, but Lowry, James Hume, Jamie Osborne, Jean Kleyn, Antoine Frisch, Caolin Blade, Scott Penny, John Hodnett and Will Connors are all players who could offer something.
They have until the end of May to make their mark and change Farrell’s mind.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor’s predicted World Cup 33
Backs (14) – Back three: Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Mack Hansen, James Lowe, Jordan Larmour. Midfield: Ciarán Frawley, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose. Half-back: Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray, Craig Casey; Johnny Sexton, Ross Byrne;
Forwards (19) – Front-row: Dan Sheehan, Rónan Kelleher, Rob Herring; Andrew Porter, Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne; Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham, Tom O’Toole. Second-row: James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Ryan Baird. Back-row: Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Nick Timoney, Cian Prendergast;