It has been a pretty special decade for Irish rugby.
Although the country has yet to surpass the quarter-final stage of a World Cup, there has been some landmark moments, incredible feats and the rise of some truly world-class players over the last 10 years.
Here, we have produced what we believe to be the best team of the decade.
It was a difficult process, especially with certain players only featuring at the beginning or the tail-end of the 10-year period but it’s safe to say that the 15 players selected below have played a huge role in the miraculous rise of Irish rugby over the last decade.
Pundit Arena’s Irish Rugby Team Of The Decade
1. Cian Healy
Since making his Ireland debut in 2009, Cian Healy has been a mainstay of the Irish front-row over the last 10 years.
The 32-year-old was long earmarked for a huge career in the professional game during his formative years playing rugby for Clontarf and his school, Belvedere College.
His sheer size and explosiveness led to numerous highlights during his early years in a green shirt but it wasn’t always plain sailing for the prop.
A serious neck injury in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup almost led to his retirement and in the immediate aftermath of 2015, he lost his Ireland place to Jack McGrath who would eventually go on to represent the British and Irish Lions in 2017.
However, Healy redefined himself by shedding weight and becoming much leaner. He made his ‘comeback’ in that 2017/18 season, and since then he has been up there with the best looseheads in Europe. An incredible athlete who will likely break the 100 cap mark in 2020.
2. Rory Best
An incredible 124 caps for Ireland which puts him in third in the all-time appearances in a green shirt – just behind Brian O’Driscoll in first and Ronan O’Gara in second.
The fact that Best played until he was 37-years-old is a testament to his professionalism and desire to compete at the highest level.
A supreme leader, Best had the respect of both his opponents and teammates and he redefined his game in his later years to add strings to his bow, especially in his breakdown work.
It came as little surprise that there were numerous clubs looking to sign him after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
3. Tadhg Furlong
What is there to say about Tadhg Furlong? Without doubt one of the best tightheads in the world at the moment and his game shows no signs of slowing down since he made his Ireland debut in 2015.
The 27-year-old already has 41 caps to his name and just two years after making his international debut, he was picked in the British and Irish Lions squad for the tour of New Zealand where he started each of the three-Test matches against the All Blacks.
A super athlete who will no doubt go on to achieve more in the game.
4. James Ryan
The fact that James Ryan made his international debut before his first senior appearance for Leinster just shows the promise the second-row had in his early years.
You sometimes need to remind yourself that Ryan is still only 23-years-old despite the 23 caps he already has under his belt in the two-year-period he has been playing at international level.
Ryan’s work-ethic is among the highest in the game and he consistently surpasses double digits in tackles and carries.
More responsibility has been placed on his shoulders in recent times with lineout calling now a staple of his game and now that he is in the conversation to become the new Ireland captain after the retirement of Rory Best, it only tells you the level that he is currently operating at in addition to the esteem in which he is held by both coaches and players.
5. Paul O’Connell
One of Ireland’s greatest ever captains, it’s impossible to leave Paul O’Connell out of this team despite his last appearance in an Ireland shirt coming in 2015.
Having captained the British and Irish Lions in 2009, O’Connell was also included in the 2013 tour but it was cut cruelly short when he fractured his arm in the opening Test win against the Wallabies.
He reinvented his game when Joe Schmidt was appointed Ireland head coach in 2013. As ever, his maul and breakdown work was excellent while his intelligence at lineout time stood out amongst the very best in the world.
A leader of men, O’Connell was one of the best motivators out there and it was such a shame that he wasn’t able to sign off on a fabulous career with a stint in Toulon due to the career-ending hamstring injury he picked up against France at the 2015 World Cup.
6. Peter O’Mahony
Since making his Ireland debut in 2012, Peter O’Mahony has more or less been a mainstay of the Irish back-row for the last eight years.
Having captained Munster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, O’Mahony’s leadership qualities are up there among the very best.
Although he may not be the most explosive of ball-carriers, O’Mahony’s strengths lie in the lineout and the breakdown. The Cork man is one of the best defensive lineout specialists in the world while there are few in the game who can remove him from a breakdown once he latches onto a ball.
His form has been a little bit inconsistent over the past 12 months, but that can be applied to much of the Irish squad, with a new wave of back-rows set to challenge for a spot in 2020, expect O’Mahony to rise to the occasion and add to his 64 caps.
7. Sean O’Brien
Some players’ international careers don’t get the end that they deserve and unfortunately for Sean O’Brien, that’s definitely the case.
‘The Tullow Tank’ has been, without doubt, one of the best loose forwards Ireland has ever produced but unfortunately, over the last 10 years, his momentum has been disrupted by injury.
Despite this, O’Brien has amassed 56 caps for Ireland and there has been some incredible performances within that time. Against Australia in the 2011 World Cup and the clashes against New Zealand in 2012 and 2013 to name but a few on a long list.
And who could forget the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand where O’Brien started every Test against the All Blacks at openside and produce some magnificent performances.
Unfortunately for O’Brien, that tour was his last major highlight as he struggled with injuries (shoulder and hip) thereafter which culminated in his final Ireland appearance coming at the end of the 2019 Six Nations when Wales clinched the Grand Slam in Cardiff.
One hopes this isn’t the end of his international career and if he can return to fitness and form with London Irish, Andy Farrell may have to bend some rules to reclaim one of the world’s best opensides on his day.
8. Jamie Heaslip
95 caps for Ireland and five for the British and Irish Lions saw Heaslip deservedly reach the centurion mark.
The Kildare native was the anchor of Ireland’s scrum for all of his career and the professionalism he showed in how he looked after his body is a lesson to any young player coming through the ranks.
Heaslip was never the bulldozing type of number eight we see so often in the modern game but he was more in the Kieran Read mould of hard-working and diligent with supreme in-game intelligence.
Heaslip had an uncanny ability of running excellent support lines, almost predicting where play would end up a couple of phases later. His handling and footwork were excellent which made incredibly dangerous to play against.
9. Conor Murray
Conor Murray’s meteoric rise is summed up perfectly by how he made his first two appearances in warm-up games ahead of the 2011 World Cup before being selected in the final 30-man squad for the showpiece event in New Zealand.
He would go on to start Ireland’s quarter-final against Wales and from then on, the Limerick man has been Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half.
Murray’s physicality, speed of passing and box-kicking made him arguably the best scrum-half in the world over the next couple of years.
Although he hasn’t hit his usual lofty heights over the last 12 months due to his previous absence with a neck injury, the 30-year-old is showing signs of getting back to the best.
10. Johnny Sexton
World player of the year in 2018 and deservedly so, Johnny Sexton made sure there was a smooth transition when Ronan O’Gara retired at the early part of this decade.
A leader, supreme game-manager and tactical genius, Sexton has been operating as one of the best out-halves in the world for some time now.
Injury has disrupted him somewhat over the years but he’s still able to operate at the highest level. Knowing his determination to be the best, expect him to stick around for some time in an Ireland jersey to swat away his would-be challengers.
11. Keith Earls
Not many players make their Ireland debut in Thomond Park but that’s what happened with Keith Earls when he donned the green shirt for the first time in November 2008 against Canada.
Since that day, Earls has amassed 82 caps for Ireland where he has scored 30 international tries. The Limerick man has been unlucky with injury at times during his 11-year international career but the Moyross native is operating at a really high level these days after shedding some weight and finding his ideal size.
There are plenty of other players who could have beaten Earls to the post, especially Luke Fitzgerald but it’s Earls’ consistent presence in an Ireland jersey throughout this decade, his finishing-ability and the way he redefined his game to suit the modern-day requirements of an international winger which sees him stand out.
A superb athlete whose determination and professionalism looks set to see his international career continue for some years to come.
12. Gordon D’Arcy
O’Driscoll’s long-time centre partner at both provincial and international level, D’Arcy was the glue which held together the Irish backline.
What puts D’Arcy ahead of the rest was his defensive nuance. The Wexford man was incredibly intelligent and his spatial awareness and ability to communicate and read the opposition were so valuable to the Ireland cause.
13. Brian O’Driscoll
Ireland’s greatest ever player. Brian O’Driscoll’s inclusion in this team needs little explanation. The Dubliner was at his height during the ’00s but in his latter his years at the beginning of this decade, ‘Drico’ redefined his game to become a superb defender and also an effective breakdown operator.
One of the most intelligent players Ireland have ever produced, O’Driscoll played a major role in his final year of international rugby when he helped his country to the Six Nations title in 2014.
One of the greats.
14. Tommy Bowe
Most Irish rugby supporters will remember commentator Ryle Nugent roaring this down the microphone at regular intervals throughout Tommy Bowe’s career.
Bowe redefined Irish wing play during his tenure; strong, athletic, excellent in the air and quick – Bowe used all of these attributes to make him one of the most dangerous wingers in European rugby.
150 points for Ireland in 69 appearances, Bowe will go down as one of the great Irish wingers.
It was such a shame to see his career end prematurely through injury.
15. Rob Kearney
Rob Kearney has been Ireland’s first-choice fullback for most his career. His spatial awareness and calmness under a high ball meant that he was too good to ignore for Leinster and Ireland coaches over the last decade.
His time as first choice may look like it could be coming to an end as he struggles to keep his spot at Leinster but the Louth man must be lauded for what an incredible servant he has been in the green of Ireland and blue of Leinster.