No-one is safe from the axe and one man may struggle to make World Cup squad 8 months ago

No-one is safe from the axe and one man may struggle to make World Cup squad

On punditry duty for the BBC, Peter Stringer spoke of Irish injuries but the 2018 champions were hardly in the midst of an injury crisis.

The Ireland team that started against Wales on Saturday was not far off full strength. Dan Leavy and Robbie Henshaw have been missed but neither would be considered a lock in the starting XV. Iain Henderson and Devin Toner were both injured but only one would have started against the Welsh.

Joey Carbery was a loss, but who is to say how many minutes Joe Schmidt would have given the Munster 10, despite the obvious struggles of Johnny Sexton.

Ireland were stunned by the ferocity of the English in their first game of the Guinness Six Nations. They could have lost by 15 points but for a late try to spare some blushes, but they have never recovered.

The echoes of that damaging loss could be seen in ragged, unsure performances against Italy, Scotland (to an extent) and Wales. Joe Schmidt said, post-match, that the media sets the narrative but even those "genuine fans" he spoke of well tell you all is not right.

Looking back on that 25-7 loss to Wales, the Irish performance does not get any better. So few did themselves justice.

Even the players that had big moments - the Jacob Stockdale break, Tadhg Beirne's steal, James Ryan flattening Ross Moriarty on a carry - were at fault at other stages of a bleak outing from the outgoing champions.

Four Irish players have copped a lot of flak since Gareth Anscombe's kick-off at 2:45pm on Saturday - Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien. Four outstanding servants and four Lions, but none will look back on this trip to Cardiff with much fondness.

(Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

For the third time in three Six Nations games at this venue, Wales have come thundering after Sexton and Murray and had their way with them. 2015 was the Wayne Barnes show as four penalties in 13 minutes had Ireland 12-0 down. 2017 saw Sexton yellow-carded and Murray taken off with an injury as the Welsh won 22-9.

The latest defeat was more galling, still, and the worst Sexton and Murray have played, individually or as a pairing, in their Test careers. Schmidt spoke, after the game, of getting closer looks at the likes of John Cooney and Jack Carty but he is unlikely to deviate from his long-standing pair of half backs.

Peter O'Mahony has enough credit in the bank to be considered favourite to wear the No.6 jersey in Japan but he was ineffective at the Principality Stadium. Many point to O'Mahony having made just three carries and one tackle in 80+ minutes of rugby but his brief was hitting rucks and he did so, involved in 39 (29 Irish and hitting 10 Welsh rucks) with one steal to his name.

The first player called ashore, though, may also be the one sweating most over the coming months. Sean O'Brien was blown away by the likes of Josh Navidi and Moriarty, and outshone by Justin Tipuric. He was as vocal as ever but he could not bring his game to bear on the Welsh or do much damage at the breakdown. He made just six carries for a return of just three metres.

Ireland's biggest loss in this championship was Dan Leavy and should the Leinster flanker get back to full fitness in the coming weeks, it should give fans a reminder of what a special talent he is. Right now, by not playing any of those five championship games, Leavy's case for openside has been strengthened.

O'Brien turned 32 in February and has come back from long-term hip and shoulder injuries. He is a warrior and, on his day, world class. However, it is starting to look like his best days could have ended with that Lions Tour in 2017.

If one were selecting a 31-man Ireland squad for the World Cup, right now, O'Brien would only be making it in on reputation, and the hope that the big occasion would stir embers, rather than form.

What, too, of the other thirtysomethings in the Ireland squad? Rob Kearney was done reasonably, Rory Best has shown glimpses of his best but has not been consistent and Keith Earls has been good.

Try pick a starting XV for our opening game of the World Cup, against Scotland, and you question yourself with nearly ever call. This, for our money, would be the 15 men chosen (with an asterisk beside guaranteed starters, if fit):

OUR STARTING IRELAND XV IN JAPAN

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Tadhg Furlong*

4. James Ryan*
5. Iain Henderson

6. Peter O'Mahony
7. Dan Leavy
8. CJ Stander*

9. Conor Murray*
10. Johnny Sexton*

11. Jacob Stockdale*
12. Robbie Henshaw
13. Garry Ringrose
14. Keith Earls*

15. Rob Kearney

That is six players we feel are certain to start against the Scots.

Every other jersey is up for grabs as Ireland look to get back to their ruthless, focused best.