Yesterday we had the forwards, today the backs. With 17 forwards picked we’re most likely looking at 14 backs; that’ll be three dedicated 9s, two out-halves, and two full-backs, leaving room for just seven three-quarters. It’s all a bit of a squeeze, favouring players who can switch a bit between roles. Last time around, Luke Fitzgerald was left at home in favour of Fergus McFadden and Paddy Wallace. Neither was as talended as Luke, but between them they could cover all the jerseys from 10 to 15 so it was them that went to Fergburger with the Farmer.
First, the easy part. This unit is as close to nailed down as anything can be 10 months out from the tournament: Peter Stringer, Duncan Williams and Ian Porter. Williams to start the matches with Stringer on to freshen things up against tiring defences.
On the plane: Murray, Reddan and Marmion. Also in the picture: at a stretch, Isaac Boss
Jonny Sexton is a sure thing, and behind him the pecking order has undergone a bit of a reshuffle. Paddy Jackson has been short of form and is now injured for six weeks. It leaves him with a lot of ground to make up on Ian Madigan. Madge had a fine series and is increasingly confident at test level. But can he get enough time at 10 at Leinster to cement his gains? Then there’s Ian Keatley, consistently solid for Munster, but maybe just a rung off the top in terms of pure talent – Keatley has the advantage of playing with Conor Murray, whereas to this point, PJ has been outside Paul Marshall. Once Ruan Pienaar makes his return, there is every chance Jackson reverts to his springtime form, and is back to challenging Madigan. But at the moment it’s Madigan’s to lose.
On the plane: Sexton. Likely to join him: Ian Madigan. Also in the running: Paddy Jackson, Ian Keatley.
Ok, now it gets tricky. Based on the most recent squad, the likely centres are D’arcy, Olding, Payne and Henshaw. The only certainty appears to be that Robbie Henshaw is going; he played 12, he played 13, he showed he has the goods; he’s in. After that, it gets a bit cloudy and will remain so until at least after the Six Nations. Jared Payne’s injury meant he missed the chance to nail down the 13 shirt, but he looks a likely bet to be a regular from here on in. Intrigue abounds at inside centre; Gordon D’arcy had two poor games and may just have slipped down the pecking order, but if anyone can hang on in there and squeeze into the squad it’s D’arcy. Then there’s Stuart Olding. The Ulster centre oozes talent, and was a bit unlucky that a lack of gametime at Ulster meant we didn’t see more of him this series, but his star is on the rise and it seems only a matter of time before he starts a high-profile test at 12. His ability to cover 10 if we’re in a jam also means he can effectively fill the 2011-Paddy Wallace role. There we have it, Stuart Olding, the new Paddy Wallace. Let the hype roll on. McCloskey is a possible bolter whose progress will be closely monitored, while Noel Reid and Mr. Face Doesn’t Fit appear further down the depth chart.
On the plane: Henshaw. Likely to join him: Darcy, Payne, Olding. Also in the picture: McCloskey, Cave, Reid
Four centres would leave room for just three wings. It’s a heck of a tight squeeze. Tommy Bowe will surely travel and Andrew Trimble, assuming he gets back from injury and starts playing well, has a huge amount of credit from the Six Nations. He’s a Schmidt darling. Then it’s a bunfight between the incumbent, Simon Zebo and a cadre of players at a similar sort of level; Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Craig Gilroy. Really, who knows. Things tend to be abit more fluid in the wide positions, with form generally dictating more than in other positions. Kearney made a try-scoring return with Leinster this weekend (that’s right, he scored a try!) while McFadden’s versatility counts for something. Two players who could completely change the dynamic if they get fit are Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald, but at this stage we’re saying it so often we’re like a broken record. We almost can’t remember a time when either Earls or Fitz was consistently fit. All we can do is hope for the best, but Schmidt is unlikely to take any risks; if it’s a choice between a fully-fit Dave Kearney and a bit-injured Keith Earls, he’ll go with the man who’s ready to play.
On the plane: Bowe. Likely to travel: Trimble, Zebo. Also in the picture: D. Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy. Potential game-changers if they can stop being injured for once: Earls, Fitzgerald
Rob Kearney is a no-brainer. On the face of it, Felix Jones is more or less a sure thing to go as his deputy, but it may not be as cut and dried as that. Jones is a fine player who had a great game against Georgia, but the fact that Henshaw, Payne and even Zebo and Olding can all fill in at full-back may leave him with more of a fight to get on the plane than you might think. It’s not inconceivable that Joe could give the last place to a fourth wing given the options he has at full-back. But for now, Jones is probably likely to squeeze in; he must be desperate to do so after missing out so unfortunately last time.
On the plane: R. Kearney. Likely to travel: Jones
The question marks at centre could very well drive the composition of the rest of the backline – with Henshaw and Payne likely travellers and Olding likely to go if progress continues, it comes down to a yes/no on Dorce. Based on the Autumn series, Darcy offers neither a line breaking threat, nor a passing threat, and his size is increasingly a misnomer in the age of the giants. But he’s been written off before and has doggedly stuck around. If D’arcy hangs in there, we are potentially picking one from Dave Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy, Earls, Fitz and Jones. However, if the coach feels that D’arcy simply can’t do the job at this level any more, he could bring an extra wing with centre experience – McFadden or Earls for example – and Jones as a specialist fullback to allow the first three centres to concentrate on being centres. D’arcy is the pivot around which the potential RWC dreams of a range of players appear to hang.