- By Matt Gault
- BBC Sport NI
World Cup warm-up – Ireland v Samoa
Venue: Stade Jean-Dauger, Bayonne Date: Saturday, 26 August Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live text updates, match report and reaction on the BBC Sport website & app
By the time Ireland head coach Andy Farrell names his World Cup squad in Dublin on Sunday afternoon, it will have been 10 weeks since he assembled a 42-man training panel to begin preparations for the tournament in France.
With an extended window under Farrell’s gaze in camp and Tests against Italy and England, players have been given ample opportunity to prove their worth, but there is still one final chance for them to ensure they snag a seat on the plane in Saturday’s final warm-up game against Samoa.
While Farrell cut five players from his group last week, six of the current 39 will suffer heartache 24 hours earlier than planned with the coach’s news conference brought forward from Monday.
Before the Samoa Test in Bayonne, BBC Sport NI looks at the main talking points as Farrell’s squad announcement looms.
Big night for Ulster men
It is set to be a big night for the Ulstermen in south-west France.
Iain Henderson is again given the chance to skipper the side in the last run-out before their World Cup opener against Romania on 9 September.
It is a first start for Stewart, 22, who made his debut as a second-half replacement in the win over Italy.
Farrell offered a positive appraisal of the hooker’s attributes when he spoke to the media this week, but with Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher and Ulster team-mate Rob Herring the other options in that position, there is a possibility that Stewart will miss out unless Farrell opts to bring four hookers.
With Sheehan and Kelleher having battled fitness concerns, Saturday is a gilt-edged chance for Stewart to shine in a World Cup-esque environment against Samoa, which could be considered a dress rehearsal for Ireland’s second Pool B game against Tonga.
McCloskey has been a regular fixture in Ireland teams over the last year, starting all three of the November Tests and three of Ireland’s Six Nations games during the Grand Slam triumph.
While Farrell has offered no clarity on whether he is leaning towards an 18/15 or 19/14 split of forwards and backs, with this being McCloskey’s second start in the warm-up games, it seems likely he will make the cut.
But with Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki all specialist centre options available to Farrell, and Jimmy O’Brien capable of slotting into that role, McCloskey can ill-afford an off-night when he lines up alongside Henshaw in Bayonne.
Stockdale left out again
While Stewart and McCloskey will relish a run-out at Stade Jean-Dauger, their Ulster team-mate Jacob Stockdale has been denied another chance to impress.
Stockdale started the win over Italy, but having been excluded from last week’s win over England, the writing appears to be on the wall for the 27-year-old after not making the matchday 23 for Samoa.
While Farrell said “everyone” remains in his thoughts, it appears unlikely that Stockdale – as well as Connacht back rower Cian Prendergast and Leinster fly-half Ciaran Frawley – will make the 33.
Diarmuid Barron and Jeremy Loughman also appear in danger of missing out, although the latter has been named among the replacements for the Samoa game.
While the depth of talent available to Farrell is remarkable, the Englishman will be praying he can avoid a last-minute injury headache with Jack Conan, Dave Kilcoyne, Sheehan and Kelleher all having spent time on the treatment table recently.
It is important to note, however, that given France’s close geographical proximity to Ireland – compared to Japan in 2019 – there is still a chance for omitted players to feature at the World Cup should injuries arise with the ability to quickly integrate squad additions.
Crowley can stake fly-half claim
Having stepped aside for the more experienced Ross Byrne against England, Jack Crowley will get another run-out at fly-half on Saturday.
Crowley, who helped Munster win the United Rugby Championship title earlier this year, won his fourth cap against Italy and made a brief cameo at centre off the bench against England before slotting in at out-half, converting Keith Earls’ try.
While captain Johnny Sexton will be short of match sharpness after being suspended for the three warm-up games, the expectation is that the 38-year-old will start Ireland’s tournament opener against Romania in Bordeaux.
Were Ireland to comfortably fend off the Romanians as expected, Farrell may choose to rest Sexton for Tonga, thus creating the possibility of Byrne or Crowley starting a World Cup match for the first time.
With 20 caps, Byrne has the edge in experience, and deserves credit for emerging from the international wilderness to re-establish himself as a possible heir to Sexton, displaying his big-game mettle when he nailed a last-gasp penalty to beat Australia in November.
However, Crowley cannot be discounted, and were the 23-year-old to shoot the lights out against Samoa in an all-Munster half-back partnership alongside Conor Murray, he may usurp Byrne as Farrell’s second-choice fly-half.
Irish could slip to number two
With players anxiously awaiting news of Farrell’s selection, the world rankings are not at the forefront of their minds.
However, it is an interesting footnote that by the time Ireland walk off the pitch at the Stade Jean-Dageur pitch, they may find themselves looking up the standings for the first time in over a year.
Ireland replaced France at the summit following their historic Test series triumph over the All Blacks last summer, and while Farrell’s side have won every match since, they would be knocked off top spot by South Africa if they fail to beat Samoa, following the Springboks’ record 35-7 win over New Zealand at Twickenham on Friday evening.
In truth, losing their number one tag would hardly alter Ireland’s mindset. Whether they are first or second, they will still be heavily fancied for a run to the knockout stages in France, knowing that South Africa is potentially the make-or-break game of the pool stage.