Thirty Man Squads

Why are the World Cup squads capped at 30 players? It looks like an arbitrary enough number, set at exactly double the number of players on a rugby team. You might think it suggest that it enables a player and a back-up for all the positions on the field. Perfect? What more could you want?

Except that this appears to overlook the position-specificity of rugby, the development of tactical substitutions and also its attritional nature. Not to mention that certain positions in the team have essentially become 50-30 minute roles to be shared by two players, a development that has taken place in the last six or seven years – in the 2007 World Cup final, the victorious Springboks made only 1 permanent change and that for 8 minutes. Admittedly, their opponents, Dad’s Army, emptied the bench and gave luminaries like, er, Peter Richards and Dan Hipkiss runouts, but they were older and were chasing the game.

One other key development that it overlooks is that matchday squads have been extended from 22 to 23 players since the last World Cup. Not only does this mean that an extra body has to be supplied to each match, but it has a significant knock-on effect on the nature of prop forwards. Back when one prop took his place on the pine, the ambi-prop who could fill in capably on both sides of the scrum was a hugely valued commodity. The outstanding filler-inner in global rugby was Toulouse’s behemoth JB Poux. Sure, France had better tightheads than Poux, and better looseheads, but none were so capable at doing both. England had Matt Stevens and David Wilson. Stars of the game and world-class in the set piece? Not a bit of it but valuable filler-in for the 17 jersey. Ireland had Tom Court. The less said about his qualities on the tighthead side the better, but he was there to cover both sides, notionally at least.

But since the advent of 23-man squads the ambi-prop no longer has any value at all, and a specialist tight and loosehead can be – indeed, must be – accommodated on the bench. As soon as the new rules came into play, Tom Court could stop having nightmares about the playing on the tight side and get on with his role as loosehead… or just get dropped from the squad altogether. Matt Stevens could … er… forget about important things like fitness and conditioning but still somehow make the Lions squad.  What was our point again?

Given a lack of requirement to fill in on both sides, props have been left to develop their game on just one side. It means most nations will be looking at bringing nine front row players. The closest thing Ireland have to a prop who can play both sides is Jack McGrath who has filled in at tighthead the odd time, but scarcely for a over a year. Could we rely upon him as emergency cover or will one of Tadgh Furlong and Stephen Archer be required (along with Mike Ross and Marty Moore, who are appear locked down)? Surely it will be the latter.

Along with three props, chances are most squads will need three of that other specialist position, scrum-half. Only France have scrum-halves and fly-halves who are interchangeable; most nations see the roles as pretty disparate. It all means that three positions could take up 12 squad places and leaves room for just 18 players to cover the other 11. It puts a premium on utility players who can cover a handful of positions. It’s good news for these player types:

  1. The athletic second row who can run fast. The second row who is quick enough to play on the blindside has a big value, because he reduces the back-row/lock requirement by one. Donnacha Ryan made the last world cup on this basis. Step forward Iain Henderson for Ireland and Courtney Lawes for England. Wales don’t appear to breed this type of player; despite having an abundance of fine second rows most of their best locks would be an uneasy fit at 6.
  2. The fly-half who can play centre, or vice-versa. Fly-half is a pretty specified role and mighty important. You need three of them in the squad, in case one gets injured, but that leaves precious little room left for backs. So ideally, at least one of these fly-halves has to be able to play elsewhere. Or one of the centres has to be able to cover fly-half. This is why Paddy Wallace was in the last panel and Luke Fitzgerald was left at home. He could cover centre, full-back and fly-half. Those with especially long memories might recall that Geordan Murphy fulfilled the role in 2007 (when Wallace was the actual backup). Stuart Olding and Ian Madigan fit the bill this time around, and at least one of them is bound to travel. For England, Billy Twelvetrees is the man, while Dan Carter has a reasonable amount of experience at 12 for the Kiwis.  James Hook is probably the classic of the genre, but he’s so good Warren Gatland generally prefers to leave him out for vastly inferior players.
  3. The Utility three-quarter – if you can only play on the right wing, you’d better be damn good because if you’re only in contention as a squad man, you’d be better off if you could cover a few jerseys in the back division. Happily, Ireland have a good few of this player type, and all of Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and especially Fergus McFadden have experience in at least two positions across the backline.
  4. The Catch-All Backrow – As with the back division, the flanker who can play a couple of positions has an inherent advantage. Ireland have found themselves with an unhealthy oversupply of blindside men in recent world cups, but Jordi Murphy – assuming he can continue his development from last season – can offer better cover at No.8 and No.7 than we’ve previously had. It also helps that Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien have played in all three positions in the backrow. Luckily for England, all their flankers are interchangeable six-and-a-halfs.  On the flipside, New Zealand, Australia and Wales appear to have the clearest demarcation between blindsides and opensides, with the likes of Warburton, Tipuric, Pocock, McCaw and Hooper performing the roles of the openside in the classic ‘breakaway’ mould beloved of purists like Leinsterlion.

All this utility nonsense might not be so important if they extended the squad size to 32 players, which appears logical.  Nobody, least of all the coaches wants a 2005-Lions-sized panel with lots of players who won’t see any action loitering in camp, but two extra bodies would probably go down well. Also, forget any notions of Joe Schmidt having a cast of extras in camp so he can draft players into the squad quickly in case of injury. It’ll be hard enough keeping 30 caged animals happy, having a bunch of hangers-on who know they can’t get selected unless some lad goes down hurting is not going to run at all.



  1. Ohteddyteddy

     /  September 23, 2014

    The injury replacement rule means it’s only really relevant from an Irish perspective when the WC is on in the SH. With it being a 40 minute flight away next year essentially all of our players will be able to be quickly parachuted in.

    • Shorter flight time is a help for sure, but the requirement to select a squad of 30 is still there for the coach, and Schmidt won’t want to have to parachute players into camp if he can help it.

      • SportingBench

         /  September 23, 2014

        Interesting post but given the ability to call up replacements from outside camp and it being an NH WC, an organised coach like Schmidt can simply pick his best/perfered players and bring someone in from outside the camp who has been on standby. Standby doesn’t have to mean on the beach. Is there any reason an extra prop or two couldn’t be outside the squad but “helping” the team with their training ior back home training and in comms with the coaches over at the camp?

    • Paddy

       /  September 23, 2014

      I think the rules is 48 hours until you can link up with the squad, that way it’s all the same no matter how close you are to the tournament.

  2. If ever a post needed a “POM on the wing” joke, it’s this one.

  3. I know this doesn’t address the main issue of your post (i.e. the size of squads) but I never understood the hype about overall squad selection for a World Cup (a Lions Tour is a different story entirely..probably the best thing about the tours!).

    Barring the first 23, the only match the dirt trackers will play is against Romania. Schmidt probably has a good idea of his starting 23 already. I don’t think the likes of who gets chosen between Diack and Jordi Murphy etc really matters. It didn’t matter that Geordan Murphy was chosen ahead of Luke Fitz and Gavin Duffy last WC for example. Fair enough it would have had Kearney got injured but thankfully I think we’re currently enjoying the best depth we’ve ever had, with a number of players that can slot in for injured would-be starters without weakening the side. Good riddance to the days of putting in horror shows but no one getting subbed because Simon Best, Guy Easterby and Paddy Wallace were on the bench.

    PS I’ve heard whispers Nathan White (and Rodney!) will be in this years Autumn International Squads, and I feel White is a very handy player…a much better option than Moore and Archer.

    • Really? The world cup is the showpiece event of the sport and only come around every four years. Even if you’re only going as the third hooker I’d say it’s a pretty big deal. Gordon D’arcy and Jamie Heaslip both describe themselves as being distraught at missing the cut in 2003 and ’07 respectively.

      • No I mean from the fan’s and media’s perspective!! A career highlight if you’re a player definitely!!

        • Ah I see. It’s obvious surely?! Fans and media love this kind of thing because it gives them an opportunity to make lists, possibly even involving colour-coding.

    • I’d have to disagree on your point about the dirt trackers only getting gametime against Romania. I’d imagine that Joe is going to be spending the Autumn Internationals/warm-up games not only figuring out who nails down the 13 jersey, but figuring out who can give his first team of undroppables a break against Canada and/or Italy. France is arguably the only match which will truly demand a completely first choice 23.

      • Of course the dirt-trackers matter. We don’t have to cast our minds back too far to recall an out half in a World Cup Final who was so far often the beaten track he was literally fishing in the middle of nowhere. Best-laid plans often go awry & banking on having your top tier players with no real contingency is very risky business altogether. Joe seems to be a belt & braces types of coach so no doubt he has many worst-case scenarios considered. also he very much picks horses for courses teams so I would expect to see variation depending on opposition.

  4. Wasn’t McGrath tried at TH against Agentina and had to swap with Cronin? I wouldn’t count either as ambi-props but Cronin at least has potential, McGrath has never held up well there. Somewhat ironically Rodney Ah You has propped both sides for a good while now but its unclear whether he was in the latest Ireland camp or not.
    Mick Kearney, who can play 4-6, was in the camp and having played against Georgia for Emerging Ireland in the summer, is probably in the mix for a full cap this November against the same opposition at least.
    JJH and Keatley are both good utility options but neither has the same excitement factor that Olding has right now.

    • Amiga500

       /  September 23, 2014

      Big License (aka Andy Warwick) is another prop who can (and has filled in at TH), he’s currently developing nicely into Ulster’s prime loosehead, so come 6N time, could find himself in the squad for the Milky Bar kid to run his eye over.

  5. Mike

     /  September 23, 2014

    The thing about the world cup that irks me is the constant ‘building for the world cup’ mantra put out by the media and coaches. Its largely about buying time by coaches or just mindless waffle from commentators.

    Its always amazing that when we get to a world cup year how quickly teams change in the lead up to the tournament. Think of the last squad when David Wallace and Jirry Flannery both pulled out at the last minute and O’Leary got binned. We lost 20% of our 1st team 2 weeks before the tournament started! There had still been no resolution to the Sexton/O’Gara debacle and Ferris was always a hair’s breadth away from an injury, as was Dennis Leamy. Who will ever forget poor Jean-Marc Doussain making his debut 76 minutes into the final….!

    Even now I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ireland team that starts against France in the RWC is unrecognisable from what we put out in November. It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that quite a few of Nathan White, Robbie Henshaw, Kieron Marmion, Stuart Olding, Marty Moore, Ian Henderson, Jordi Murphy, James Cronin etc are considered nailed on starters by then.

  6. In 2011 the squads weren’t announced until the end of August – although Ireland are playing a warm-up against England on 5 September 2015 – could this be after the squad announcement? History has demonstrated that some poor sod is likely to lose out because of injury during the warm-up games. While Joe may not want obvious space fillers hanging around the squad, he will want replacements to fit in as seamlessly as possible after inevitable injuries.

  7. McShane

     /  September 23, 2014

    “Only France have scrum-halves and fly-halves who are interchangeable”

    I guess that’s true if the French coaches are looking for scrum-halves who can play 10 equally poorly *Cough* Parra, Michalak and Doussain *Cough*

    • Indeed, nobody said anything about them being any good! J-M Doussain was appalling in the Six Nations but I expect his ability to double up as a 10 to get him to the World Cup.

      • Frankly, the only thing that could surprise me about France’s selection for the World Cup would be to have some sort of continuity at 9 and/or 10. FTD will travel, but will probably only come on for Bastaeraud for 10 minutes against Romania and be promptly dropped for not grievously injuring people in contact, or something.

  8. Andrew097

     /  September 23, 2014

    Irish rugby has never really valued a out and out number seven, therefore never searches for them. We tend to see the roles as more interchangeable and can be just learnt with a few games. Yet we fawn over the likes of a McCaw and their ability to really influence games.
    The number seven is probably the first player you should pick because what he can play like, will often dictate how your team can play and then who you can pick. Ireland has not have to worry about this for a decade since we had two pretty handy ground hogs playing in the centre.
    Funny if I was picking an Irish back row today Henry is the first name down then I would start to think.

    • Stephen

       /  September 24, 2014

      O’Brien, Henry, Heaslip at 6-7-8 is an interesting back row (if they can cope with the loss of O’Mahony’s pashun).

  9. seiko

     /  September 23, 2014

    My understanding for the 30 man squad is to maintain some sort of a level playing field for all teams. Teams like Samoa, Fiji etc don’t have the deep pockets and US, Canada etc. don’t have the depth. In fact, Ireland didn’t really have a lot of depth at props for last world cup.

    • Same depth problem exists for plenty of the teams at the football world cup. However the squads are 23 strong – 3 players for the one “designated” position, goalkeeper, and 2 for all the others. Rugby has 3 designated positions – the front rowers – so you’d think a squad of 33 with 9 designated front rowers would make sense?

      • I actually think the 23 man bench was held up for this very reason – would be difficult for smaller nations to implement

        • seiko

           /  September 24, 2014

          And the reason 23 man squads were introduced in the first place was to stop teams resorting to uncontested scrums if they were getting hammered in them!

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