Time for the first in our new series of Ireland team selections by bloggers from the four provinces…first up, introducing Connacht!
Click here for more on the feature, but basically the idea is to select an Ireland matchday 23 for a test to be played the following Saturday.
I didn’t realise how hard it would be to pick an Ireland team in August until I actually sat down to do it; but it is.
With the start of a new season, it’s hard to know whether last year’s form will have any bearing or whether now’s the time to really get across your philosophy on the game by picking three opensides or some such nonsense. With this in mind I’ve decided to compromise on the issue and base my decisions somewhere between form in June and a blank canvas.
I have to say however, that there are a lot of new guys who look like this is the season for them to make their mark and although my first selection may be a bit of a predictable one, there will undoubtedly be many more contentious selections to come down the line. I’m looking forward to it!
Loosehead Prop: Cian Healy
Conveniently the first selection is one of the easiest and made all the easier by the emergence of a readymade replacement in the shape of Dave Kilcoyne. I got to see Kilcoyne play against Racing in Thomond earlier this year and he definitely has the footwork and power in contact to be an international ball-carrier. Healy was undoubtedly one of the players the Lions missed the most in June, ‘nuff said. Tom Court will provide cover but Schmidt could be looking for another young loosehead to come into the fray, possibly Jack McGrath.
Hooker: Rory Best
This one may cause a bit of debate but Rory is surely the kind of experienced leader you want at the heart of your team. In December of last year he looked the complete package, turning in abrasive performances for Ulster. By February the yips had started to take hold and this problem with his throwing seemed to have a knock-on effect on every other aspect of his game. He looked a shadow of himself in a Lions jersey to the point where no-one was suggesting his inclusion in a match day squad. Where am I going with this? Well, my point is pretty simple: if all this came from the yips then we have to presume it’s temporary and give Rory a fair shot at making up for it.
Behind him I’d have Mike Sherry, a man who looks like he has the physicality and understanding to play international rugby. I’m a big fan of Strauss but he just gets edged out based on size. Both these players could work their way into the team with some form though.
Tighthead Prop: Mike Ross
A serious problem for Ireland looking ahead to the next RWC, but at the moment Ross is unchallenged at tighthead. Schmidt will surely be looking to blood someone, and Jamie Hagan seems to be the man starting to fulfil his potential… finally! Elsewhere we should be concerned about Declan Fitzpatrick’s proneness to injury and the IRFU’s indecision in appointing a dedicated Scrum coach.
Second Row: Donnacha Ryan, Paul O’Connell*
This Munster partnership has the potential to be a very fulfilling one at international level, providing both players can stay free from injury. Ryan has finally come to the fore as an international lock, and will be asked to continue to add leadership and street-smarts to his natural aggressiveness. O’Connell was so impressive when he appeared for the Lions that his fitness may have a huge bearing on Ireland’s fortunes this season. What else is new!
Should either of these guys fall I would imagine Mike McCarthy would start, having proven his worth in this year’s Six Nations, but could lose a bench spot to Ian Henderson depending on how Joe wants to play it. Other players who will look to impress are Devin Toner and Dan Tuohy.
*Paul O’Connell has informed us that he is cutting his honeymoon short in preparation for ‘next Saturday’s Test Match’. He is reported to be ‘putting the fear of God’ into travel agents in an attempt to make training this week.
Back Row: Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip
I have to admit that when I saw this back row in operation earlier in the year I was less than impressed. The traditional roles of each position seemed lost and there were definitely times when confusion abounded. A number of factors have convinced me otherwise since then. Firstly, O’Brien displayed a subtlety to his game for the Lions not seen before and, when married to his natural physicality, makes him an even more effective player at openside. Meanwhile in North America, Peter O’Mahony was putting in hard grafting performances and leading from the front against two very physical packs in the USA and Canada. He’s finally convinced me he can get some workhorse stuff done while also identifying himself as the natural backup to Heaslip at 8. Jamie just keeps doing what he’s been doing for years and doing it all accurately and with confidence.
There’s definitely room for a guy like Ian Henderson to get some game time at 6 this year, he’s the kind of massive backrower we just don’t produce, and it remains to be seen where his future lies positionally. At openside, I’m a big fan of Chris Henry but he’s in danger of becoming the next Shane Jennings at international level, while Tommy O’Donnell could overtake him with another good season. It goes without saying that injury will dictate where the backrow debate goes over the course of the season. Come on Fez!
Scrum Half: Conor Murray
Murray was the best scrum half on tour for the Lions and was unlucky not to get recognised as such. Good on him! Being blooded early is finally starting to pay off for Murray and he’s really beginning to boss games. Schmidt just needs to make sure that he continues to develop a good relationship with Sexton at 10. They could go and go.
Elsewhere the age factor comes into it. Isaac Boss is still playing great rugby but he’s 33 now. Reddan is 33 in November, but I feel Schmidt will want his experience and pace off the bench. Paul Marshall may just be unlucky to miss out as Kieran Marmion is coming through with real promise, a young player with an old head on his shoulders!
Outhalf: Jonny Sexton
Le Jonny will hopefully bring flair as well as the usual control and steely determination to his jersey. Very much his let’s be honest, but Madigan showed some great touches last season, and did everything Les Kiss asked of him in June, putting him ahead of Paddy Jackson for me.
Inside Centre: Stuart Olding
This is the one position where I’ve gone for a bolter, and it was the toughest call of them all! First off, I’m disregarding D’Arcy due to age. One of the centre positions needs to be filled by a young guy with promise and I’m pretty sure it ain’t gonna be the outside centre berth until June 2014! Luke Marshall certainly impressed last year, and he’s a really nice ball-player, but I just feel that Olding brings an extra dimension to the Irish backline with his running and stepping game. Both he and Marshall have played 10 in the past and so there’s little between them, but maybe down the line we may see Marshall stepping out to 13 or something like that. As far as 12 goes though, I’m plumping for Olding!
Elsewhere look out for Dave McSharry of Connacht. If he can sort his injury worries out and get into some form he’ll definitely find his way into some squads!
Outside Centre: Brian O’Driscoll
You knew. Still capable and, like O’Connell, seemingly impossible to drop. Well, sorta…
Hard to know who’s backing this guy up though. It looks like Eoin O’Malley is still struggling with injury and Darren Cave probably isn’t going to make it at the top level, nor is Keith Earls. Joe Schmidt may well look to the next generation next summer and give Luke Marshall or Robbie Henshaw a chance. As far as Henshaw is concerned, he could be the real deal, but is currently being considered a fullback, something which isn’t likely to change if Eoin Griffin maintains his form after a bright pre-season so far for Connacht.
Wings: Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy
Don’t panic ladies, Tommy Bowe is in my team every day of the week but he is currently injured so that rules him out of contention…
Zebo was great last season and has proven himself a star. He’s also very good at rugby. Gilroy too lit up the stage at times and should kick on this year and get right back into contention. A player who should not be forgotten here is Fergus McFadden, a physical and hard-working utility player with loads of pace and an eye for the tryline, he stays in contention for every match day squad ‘cos you know he’s going to impress the coach in training every week, fair play to him.
In the background we’ve got guys like Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls who unbelievably will be trying to prove that their best days are not behind them. Also I like the look of Luke O’Dea at Munster, and I’m also predicting a good season for Matty Healy at Connacht!
Fullback: Rob Kearney
Weirdly, this could either be construed as an easy call or being faithful to a player who’s relying on reputation at the moment. In my opinion Bob hasn’t played great recently and I’m a bit concerned. Saying that, he’s usually rock solid under the high ball, etc etc. Also, provides much need experience to the backbone of the team.
Having said that, Robbie Henshaw has all the physical attributes, skills and confidence to emerge as a real contender this season. Other than that, Zebo can fill in at fullback if needed and Felix Jones will make some squads but may just miss out on real chance.
1: Cian Healy
2: Rory Best
3: Mike Ross
4: Donnacha Ryan
5: Paul O’Connell
6: Peter O’Mahony
7: Sean O’Brien
8: Jamie Heaslip
9: Conor Murray
10: Jonny Sexton
11: Simon Zebo
12: Stuart Olding
13: Brian O’Driscoll
14: Craig Gilroy
15: Rob Kearney
16: Mike Sherry
17: Dave Kilcoyne
18: Jamie Hagan
19: Ian Henderson
20: Chris Henry
21: Eoin Reddan
22: Ian Madigan
23: Fergus McFadden
Connachtman [@connachtman87] - sometime blogger, long time reader, avid supporter of Connacht rugby against all odds and in any weather.
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