Looking like a straight shoot-out between Earls and McCloskey for final World Cup spot
If this was his final game for Ireland, Keith Earls has passed the baton in style.
Even though Ireland, and even World Cup side, have two extra squad places to allocate, there are set to be some tough calls for Andy Farrell. Keith Earls got his dream send-off at Lansdowne Road, on Saturday, but will be hoping his Test journey does not stop at 100.
Ahead of the World Cup warm-ups, with Johnny Sexton's ban confirmed, I speculated that Keith Earls could get the honour of leading Ireland out, in Bayonne, for his 100th Test cap. The idea would be Earls making it to 100 Test caps and getting the captaincy, too.
As it played out, Andy Farrell had something sweeter in mind. Earls started the win over Italy, in early August, and was named on the bench for Saturday's game against Italy. After waiting 12 months for cap no.99, two came along for the Munster winger in short succession.
Earls is the longest serving senior squad member, having played Churchill Cup in 2007 and made his Test debut in 2008. He is as well regarded as they come, in that squad, and his openness and raw honesty within that team setting is something that endears him to so many.
Still, it was remarkable to see the level of undiluted emotions around Earls for the entire week. It was almost as if the 35-year-old was the one taking it most in his stride. Titans like Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony were all said to have choked up, when paying dues to him. Paul O'Connell got up and addressed the squad and there were not many dry eyes in the house.
The personal connection so many feel to Earls resonates up into the stands. When he replaced James Lowe, in the 59th minute, it brought about the loudest cheer of the game. When he scored a tumbling try in the closing stages, the roars were up there with the full-time whistle of March's Grand Slam clincher, against England.
Earls says he may stay on playing after the World Cup, but this felt like the end, in many ways. He may continue on with Munster but he is unlikely to play Test rugby again after the World Cup.
Will he play in the World Cup? Most of the evidence stacks up that he will make the final squad. However, there was something as yet unspoken about Saturday's game that had a swan song feel to it. That Earls and his teammates could already know which way the tide is going on this one.
The conservative call that could cost Keith Earls
Andy Farrell will have known 28 or 29 of his World Cup squad from as far back as March, after the Six Nations. He conceivably sketched out an early 33-man squad back then, too.
In March, Keith Earls may have been outside that 33. He had missed both the November 2022 Tests and the 2023 Six Nations because of injuries and Jimmy O'Brien had emerged as the new utility back that could slot in wherever he was needed.
Earls then suffered a groin injury in early May and himself admitted that he feared his career was over. Somehow, he was able to return to help Munster win the United Rugby Championship. He was needed as injuries and concussions had cost Munster three backs. He got back out there and played a key role in semi-final and final wins.
The Moyross man was included in the 42-man World Cup training camp and was retained when it was cut to 38. Jeremy Loughman, Ciarán Frawley and Jacob Stockdale look the most vulnerable, leaving 35 players for 33 spots if we remove that trio from the equation.
All the talk right now is of a 19/14 or 18/15 split between forwards and backs. Getting a read of this Ireland squad, their tendencies and past World Cup selections, something is telling me Ireland are veering towards 19/14 with both Joe McCarthy and Cian Prendergast included. McCarthy featuring against Italy and England, as well as Cian Prendergast, would lean towards both going as they are getting their minutes and reps in.
That leaves the call between Earls and Stuart McCloskey for the last squad spot. It had long been my thinking that McCloskey would make it as both Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw have shown historic flaws in being able to string games together in a short span. If Ringrose, Henshaw and Bundee Aki get through the final week of prep, and the Samoa game, unscathed, McCloskey may well be the luxury Farrell has to go without.
O'Brien, for now, is the new version of Earls so Farrell and his coaches may ask themselves - do we want an Earls to plug in across the backline or provide bench cover, or do we want McCloskey as a starter for two pool games (say Tonga and South Africa) to give ourselves ample cover at centre?
Ryan Baird being able to cover second row and back row may still see Ireland swing back the other way and find room for Keith Earls and Stuart McCloskey but the conservative choice is - if in doubt, pick an extra forward.
The team we see against Samoa will look similar to the one that faces Romania in the opener, so it is worth bearing that in mind, regarding selections. Injuries and suspensions could yet be those late curveballs but my sense is that 19/14 split with a straight shoot-out between Earls and McCloskey.
If Earls does miss out, he'll always have that magical Dublin night to look back on, as well as 99 other hard-earned Ireland caps.
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