Following a successful defense of their six nations crown it is time for the Irish rugby squad to look ahead to the upcoming world cup. With competition for places fiercer then ever lets role out a ranking of the top 35 players.
The list is based not just on ability and standing within the current squad, but also how critical a player is to the team and the depth at their position.
1. Jonny Sexton
Ireland have two (maybe three when Healy is at full strength) players who should be actually designated as “world class”. Sexton leads that list, has done so for the last three years, and injuries permitted will do so for another three years. For this Irish team he is the way, the truth and the life. He had an absolute nightmare against Wales and it cost Ireland a Grand Slam. The injuries and occasional shonky kicking performances (typically brought about by injuries) are also beginning to become serious concerns. While there is merit in his commitment to defence you might begin to question the wisdom of it for a man with a history of concussions. He may be a better all round player then Ronan O’Gara, but I would say O’Gara was more valuable to Ireland by dint of the fact that he was never injured and over time because utterly reliable from the kicking tee.
From an Irish squad perspective his status is only enhanced by the fact that Ian Madigan has had two years to establish himself as Leinsters first choice out half and has failed to do it, Ian Keatley is Ian Keatley, and someone finally found Paddy Jacksons birth cert, realized he is actually 12 and therefore a liability at adult level rugby. As Sexton goes so does Ireland, he is utterly irreplaceable.
2. Conor Murray
I actually debated whether Murray should be number one on this list, not only because he belongs on the extremely short list of truly world class Irish players, but also because there is a serious depth issue behind him in the short and long term. Murray rise from a player regarded by certain one-eyed fans as a pet project of Declan Kidney to a corner stone of this team has been incredibly impressive. He is the archetypal modern scrum half; tall, quick, strong in the tackle, excellent kicker and smooth passer. His kicking game in particular has become a key weapon for the Irish team. He is the type of player Ireland struggle to produce, deserves the max contract headed his way from the IRFU/A.N Other French Moneybags club.
3. Paul O’Connell
No longer world class, (when you take off your green tinted shades and look at what Brodie Retallick produces regularly), but not far off and still very much the heartbeat of the Irish team. Tackle count is huge. Hilariously made two clean line breaks when Ireland played Wales in the Six Nations. He was the last player Ireland needed running into that type of space, but it was a clear sign of his determination to carry the game to Wales when the two players above him on this list had somewhat of an off day. Looks like Ian Henderson is growing into his role as a future successor to the throne but for the minute, the king stay the king.
4. Sean O’Brien
Falls squarely into the category of a body type Ireland rarely produces and so should be cherished. Has fought back from serious injury issues over the last year and is beginning to produce his best form. There are a limited number of game breakers in the Irish squad which only increases his importance to the side.
5. Robbie Henshaw
The Irish answer to George North, with possibly a bit more finesse to his game. Has made the step up to international rugby pretty seamlessly and injury permitting looks likely to be a fixture in the side for the next ten years. Adds value to the squad through his ability to cover the 12, 13 and 15 positions. Had a huge tackle count throughout the Six Nations and hopefully as his game develops will see more creativity to his play to go along with that.
Tragically he is also certain to be the subject of an incredibly tedious, year long, transfer saga next season. This will include debates over whether he should have been playing for Leinster all along considering that he is from the Westmeath side of Athlone, and also barbs that his talent would be wasted in Munster because clearly the main issue with Keith Earls and Simon Zebo is that their creativity is being stifled. Added comedy in that this will also be the first and only time anyone from the greater south Dublin area tries to claim someone from Athlone is actually one of them.
6. Cian Healy
I don’t care that Jack McGrath started most of the Six Nations games and looked solid, I also don’t care that loosehead is a rare position of depth in the Irish squad. Cian Healy, when fit and on his game, is world class and should always start for Ireland. He scrummages well, he carries well, he tackles well, he poaches well and he carries a nasty edge in everything he does. He is the closest Ireland has to an on field enforcer. In summation he is an extremely effective asshole of a player when on the field (and potentially when off it, and again I don’t care).
7. Jamie Heaslip
People don’t like Heaslip because he has the audacity to have a life outside of rugby, and to take the extremely healthy view that rugby is not the only thing that matters in his life. This appears to mask the fact that his dedication to his craft is second to none. It isn’t a coincidence that until this season (and a horrible knee to the back from Pascal Pape), he never missed a game of note for Ireland or Leinster; it is because he looks after his body and places a total emphasis on preparation and recovery. There will come a time in the not too distant future when people will pine for the consistency of his excellence. Would be slightly higher on this list but for some of the strength in depth coming up behind him.
8. Tommy Bowe
Tall, fast, a nordie, all useful attributes for making any Irish team. Seems to have entirely locked down his position, even while 4 or 5 people fight (read – wait for Simon Zebo to make any mistake) for the other wing spot.
9. Jared Payne
Treated with a certain amount of suspicion because a) he isn’t Brian O’Driscoll (fair enough), b) is from out foreign and therefore his presence is cheapening the jersey (unfair) and c) isn’t the cause celebre of the Dublin media, Luke Fitzgerald (extremely unfair).
Grew into his position during the Six Nations and showed in the Welsh and Scottish games what he can offer when provided a certain amount of freedom to do so. Will likely always be unfairly judged on the three criteria mentioned above but the reality is Ireland has little to no depth at 13 beyond Payne and Henshaw.
10. Rory Best
Occasional yips at the line-out aside he has become a phenomenally consistent player for Ireland. Huge tackle count, and while he isn’t as dynamic as Sean Cronin he still carries with good effect.
11. Ian Henderson
The first potential controversial ranking – how is he ranked ahead of Devin Toner when he doesn’t start ahead of him? Because these are my rankings and I have decided the criteria, and I don’t have to worry about putting a team on the pitch and so can hypothesize on potential over production. Simply put there are very few people of his height and ballast knocking around Ireland. When you add in his athletic ability and natural aggression it becomes obvious that it is a case of when and not if he becomes a key player for Ireland. The gap between him and Toner is close but I would put that down to Toner playing at or near the top of his potential while Henderson is only scratching the surface of his.
12. Devin Toner
An underrated success story of Irish rugby, he has developed himself into a player of outstanding consistency. A lesson into how to get the maximum out of your natural ability. Destined to never get the plaudits of his current (O’Connell) or future (Henderson) partners for Ireland, but doesn’t appear bothered by that.
13. Peter O’Mahony
Has grown into a player whose performances on the field match the press coverage he gets off it. A player Joe Schmidt has had a definite influence on, and while his tackle count may not be particularly high adds a lot around the field as well as at the line-out. Gets added marks for his ability to “make the face” both during the national anthems, and in all close encounters with the opposition.
14. Mike Ross
Had been written off by Matt O’Connor before the Six Nations, but not by Joe Schmidt, and responded with a fantastic tournament. Is guaranteed to be on the plane/boat to England barring an injury set back, and there may not be enough game time between now and then for him to lose his starting position to the next person on this list.
15. Marty Moore
The great white hope of Irish prop forward play has so far failed to dislodge man in possession. Adds a lot more around the field than Ross, but potentially needs to refocus his emphasis on scrummaging solidly.
16. Rob Kearney
It could be argued that this is a curious ranking for one of the first names on the team sheet, but it is driven by a number of points; 1) He hasn’t looked that dynamic playing for Ireland or Leinster this year, 2) The normal Irish backline roles out 4 other players who can play his position and so an injury to him would not be as big an issue as for nearly any other position on the team, and 3) He is one of the few Irish players who would struggle to start for any of the other Six Nations sides (outside Italy).
17. Luke Fitzgerald
Real talk – he is a fabulously talented rugby player who has been unlucky with injuries. More real talk – staying injury free (whether through luck, conditioning or a combination of both) is itself a key attribute for any professional sports player. Fitzgerald has struggled to stay on the field and so has never become the player that Leinster fans say he is. It is hoped that that fact pattern changes because he would instantly become one of Ireland’s best players if he stayed fit. Joe Schmidt has worked with him, and obviously wants to play him if given the opportunity – pour one out for the international career of Simon Zebo.
18. Ian Madigan
A small part of the reasoning behind the sacking of Declan Kidney (in the eyes of certain Leinster fans at least) was that he trusted the one two combination of an aging Ronan O’Gara and lightweight Paddy Jackson over the all singing, all dancing, Carlos Spencer reincarnated with better kicking stats, Ian Madigan. The last two years have been a somber career recalibration for Madigan and those same fans. You can blame Matt O’Connor, you can blame Jimmy Gopperth or you can blame the man himself but the facts are that he still isn’t Leinsters first choice out half, and he won’t be for the foreseeable future. Joe Schmidt trusts him for 10 or 15 minutes, but it spoke volumes that he trusted Ian Keatley (IAN KEATLEY!!!) when he needed a controlled game plan to be executed against Italy.
Seems certain to continue to make Irish game squads because of his unique versatility, but the days of him being seen as a legitimate challenger to Sexton are surely gone.
19. Jordi Murphy
Looks a bit like Jamie Heaslip, plays a bit like Jamie Heaslip, trusted by Joe Schmidt and for now has locked down the position of first choice back row substitute.
20. Tommy O’Donnell
Incredibly unlucky not have been more involved for Ireland over the course of tournament, as he performed excellently each time he was called upon. Possibly suffers for not being as versatile as Jordi Murphy, but isn’t far off. Has a pretty unique combination of speed and handling skills for an Irish back rower, and is someone who should definitely be on the plane to England.
21. Jack McGrath
Had an excellent tournament but the reality is that he isn’t first choice when Healy is fit, and barring a dramatic injury or downturn in form for Healy that isn’t going to change anytime soon. If James Cronin gets more gametime for Munster the concern might be a challenge to his spot as first back up.
22. Sean Cronin
Dodgy line out throwing is still keeping him from mounting a true challenge to Rory Best. Has taken the opportunity provided due to the absence of Strauss and established his position as first choice for Leinster. Considering the injuries and retirements Munster have had at this position, and his own background with Shannon, would there be merit in David Nucifora looking to move him back to Limerick?
23. Simon Zebo
A somewhat curious situation for one of Ireland mores unique talents; has more natural ability and pace than other wingers competing for a starting position, but the situation definitely smells of someone Joe Schmidt does not fully trust, and who is on the most short leash imaginable. The fact that he was given the hook so quickly after the Welsh defeat spoke volumes for this, even if it also reflected the fact the management team were keen to give Fitzgerald an opportunity. I imagine he must have had a certain amount of frustration in watching Ireland ACTUALLY PASS THE BALL WIDE in the game against Scotland, having himself spent the previous four games solely chasing kicks and getting involved in rucks.
24. Eoin Reddan
Provides a reliable change of pace service off the bench. Inexplicably lost his place to Isaac Boss for the recent Leinster Toulon game, a decision made to look even more foolish when Reddan entered the game and immediately improved the pace of Leinster’s play. People have talked about Marmion as deserving a place in the squad ahead of Reddan but until Reddan demonstrates slippage or Marmion demonstrates undeniable international credentials then I don’t see it.
25. Paddy Jackson
The baby faced ginger rapper has a good chance of establishing himself as the back up to Sexton if he keeps injury free and gets consistent game time for Ulster. Has a significant advantage over Ian Madigan in that he is the clear first choice out half for his club side.
26. Ricardt Strauss
Great to see him back, having recovered from such a serious injury. Probably will remain the third choice hooker unless Mike Sherry manages to return from injury or Duncan Casey continues his rate of improvement for another six months.
27. Ian Keatley
Earned a well-deserved start against Italy, performed solidly and subsequently was dropped entirely from the match day squad for the rest of the tournament. This raises an interesting point over Irish squad selection –
- Ireland have a very defined game plan under Joe Schmidt, the fulcrum of which is a fully fit Jonny Sexton;
- When he is fit Jonny Sexton should never, ever be substituted during a game;
- If he is substituted Ireland are immediately in a difficult situation;
- Taking account of the above why is Ian Madigan on the bench as a “change of pace” impact substitute?
- Should Ian Keatley, who is a more like for like alternative for Sexton therefore not be on the bench as a “break in case of emergency” substitute?
- Is this situation not even further highlighted by the fact that we have an incredibly versatile backline who all cover multiple positions (e.g. Henshaw covers 12, 13 and 15, Payne covers 12, 13 and 15, Fitzgerald if he starts covers 13, 14 and 15)?
Only Joe Schmidt knows the answer to the above.
28. Andrew Trimble
Ireland’s player of the tournament last year has had a season ruined by injury this year. Is someone who would likely have started all games if fit. If he can demonstrate any level of fitness has a great chance of making the world cup squad.
29. Keith Earls
Another person who has had a rough injury related season. Included in the wider squad by Joe Schmidt and appears to be highly rated. Appears to be behind Luke Fitzgerald in the pecking order as he had similar gametime after return from injury, but didn’t make a match day squad.
30. Dave Foley
Potential to at the least be a long term squad member for Ireland assuming he stays injury free. Immediately looked at home at international level when he played in the November tests.
31. Kieran Marmion
Probably needs an opportunity to convince people he has the required ability to operate at international level. Unlikely to get that in a world cup year, despite the age of Eoin Reddan and the lack of other challengers.
32. Felix Jones
Keeps making Irish squads, despite offering little by way of versatility or spark if a lot by way of dependability. Clearly falls into the category of having a “face that fits” within Joe Schmidts Ireland. Personal choice would be that Earls, Zebo or Craig Gilroy should be included ahead of him.
33. Chris Henry
See comments re. Andrew Trimble above
34. David Kearney
Somewhat of a forgotten man of Irish rugby, performed well when asked last year but you have to feel that it would take injuries to most of the players ahead of him for him to win back his position beside his brother.
35. Ulster outside back de jour
One of Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey will eventually establish himself and become a genuine challenger for a squad place. Might be useful for David Nucifora to use his position to cajole one or two of the others to take a stint down south in Munster, if for nothing else then to end the sight of Denis Hurley at inside centre.