Preparations building for Rugby World Cup
By Daire Walsh
IRELAND’S preparations for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup are set to intensify this Saturday afternoon, when Joe Schmidt’s side welcome Six Nations rivals Italy to the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 2pm).
The Azzurri will provide the opposition for the first of four warm-up games involving the Green Army – leading towards their pool opener against Scotland on September 22. Owing to the lack of a summer tour, the Irish players have been out of competitive action since the conclusion of the PRO14 at the end of May.
While the Italians displayed some improved form during the recent Six Nations Championship, this is expected to be a relatively low-key re-introduction for Ireland’s World Cup hopefuls. Back-to-back away assignments will subsequently follow against England (September 24) and Wales (September 31), before they welcome the latter to the Aviva Stadium seven days later in a reverse fixture.
As always, there will be Irish interest in the Italian camp with former international full-back Conor O’Shea at the helm. Though he spent much of his childhood in Dublin, O’Shea was born in Limerick and his squad will be using the Treaty County as a training base for the duration of their time on these isles.
Additionally, ex-Leinster star Ian McKinley is included in their 44-man preliminary training group for the World Cup. With eight caps already under his belt, he stands a strong chance of making it in the final selection.
When Ireland last competed at the World Cup in 2015, Naas’ Jamie Heaslip was the sole representative from Kildare. Barring injury, that figure is set to double when Schmidt unveils his 31-man squad for the trip to Japan.
Since his high-profile move to Munster, Athy native Joey Carbery has established himself as a genuine contender to Jonathan Sexton in the pivotal out-half role. Even though Sexton remains in firm control of the number ten shirt, Carbery will most likely get an opportunity to start in at least one of Ireland’s pool encounters.
The possibility of both players featuring in the same line-up has also been mooted, with Carbery having featured extensively at full-back in the past.
Carbery was joined in the south this season by Eadestown’s Tadhg Beirne, who made the return to Ireland following a successful two-year stint at Scarlets. His place in the squad is perhaps less assured, with competition for places proving to be ferocious in both the second-row and back-row departments.
The fact Beirne is comfortable across a number of different positions may well swing matters in his favour. Despite not being fully eligible just yet under the residency rule, his Munster team-mate Jean Kleyn is currently training with the squad in Carton House.
Devin Toner, James Ryan and Iain Henderson are automatic choices. There are several viable options for the back-row as well, with the recent injuries to Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy elevating Josh van der Flier’s status in time for the tournament.