By Garry Irwin
IN 21st century Test rugby, superstars play at No 7. Richie McCaw, David Pocock and Sam Warburton have all been heralded, with Michael Hooper, after his performance against England, set to be added to the list. The question most Ireland fans are asking themselves is whether they have enough depth in their back row and where the next superstar is coming from.
On paper, Ireland’s best back row is Stephen Ferris at blindside flanker, Sean O’Brien at openside and Jamie Heaslip at No 8. However, it has often been argued that Sean O’Brien shouldn’t be playing at openside because he isn’t a ‘fetcher’ – O’Brien more of a wrecking ball who loves ball in hand and relishes skittling over the opposition.
At 25 Sean O’Brien has already reached great peaks – being recognised by his contemporaries as a standout talent in 2011, with his stellar performances earning him the ‘ERC European Player of the Year’ whilst playing at blindside flanker for Leinster. However, since then he has lost his way a little and has been defensively targeted whilst playing for Ireland at No 7 thereby nullifying his threat to the annoyance of Ireland fans with their new weapon decommissioned during matches.
The question I’d raise is, should the Sean O’Brien experiment be continued? Should Ireland try and embrace a natural fetcher by blooding players like Chris Henry more often, as they did against South Africa, or even utilize Shane Jennings again or look at the young Ireland ‘loosies’ coming through? The hard-nosed Leinster backrow has forged a formidable reputation but at 31, surely he can’t be used as Ireland’s stand-in at No 7. Ireland need to embrace a new batch of flankers – with Chris Henry being blooded against South Africa at openside, there’s the opportunity for him to grow at Test level.
Ulster are unbeaten this term and Chris has been one of the players spearheading the Ulster revival with his dogged attitude. At 28, with three caps to his name, Chris has plenty of life in him yet. However, much younger men need to nurtured and drafted in to the elite squad in time for England 2015.
One of opensides coming through is Scottish born Munster flanker Sean Dougall. Dougall’s has had an eye-catching start to his first season with Munster, impressing various pundits and fans in recent weeks, which begs the question, should Sean be thrown into the senior squad mix or developed slowly with the Wolfhounds?
On the other side of scrum, at blindside, with Stephen Ferris’s injuries, a variety of players are getting a look in for the position. The most notable is young Ulster tyro Iain Henderson who has been grabbing headlines ever since his impressive performance for Ireland at the Junior World Championship that saw the U20 side beat the Baby Boks. Although Iain played at lock during the Championship he still managed to put in some mature performances and didn’t let anyone down against Fiji last weekend.
Peter O’Mahony is another option throughout the backrow with the Munster man having played at both blindside and No 8 for Ireland. O’Mahony came through the Irish youth ranks, notably captaining the Ireland U18 and U20 sides and many are predicting a big future. At 23, O’Mahony has already became a go-to figure for Munster with the likes of Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara spending less and less time on the pitch. Peter will surely get more valuable experience under his belt during the Autumn Internationals.
Other players fighting for recognition include Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan and Munster are well stocked with the aforementioned Sean Dougall, Dave O’Callaghan and Paddy Butler.
The talent is there for all to see but which of these players will step up? I for one, will be fascinated to see the jigsaw falling into place.