Competition for places in the Irish team has intensified in recent weeks.
This time last year if somebody argued that Ireland would beat New Zealand without Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, they would have been met with derision.
However that is exactly what came to pass in Chicago last week. Although the All Blacks had themselves suffered a number of injuries particularly in the second row, few expected Ireland to come away with anything other than defeat.
As much as Ireland’s victory was joyously celebrated, it leaves Joe Schmidt with a number of selection headaches, particularly in the backrow where Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony will be chomping at the bit against Canada.
At the beginning of the season the duo were seen as potential Lions tourists, but could now struggle to dislodge CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier.
Despite his relative inexperience, the Leinster openside is now Ireland’s best option in the number seven jersey and it could be that his more illustrious rivals are set to battle it out for the two remaining backrow slots.
Indeed, O’Brien’s future may lie at number eight for Ireland, where he can focus on using his devastating power to maximum effect. However, Jamie Heaslip’s form is such that it is difficult to see him being dropped any time soon.
The same can be said of CJ Stander, who has added a number of strings to his bow in the last year or so. No longer does he try and smash through the first defender he sees, but adapts his lines with tidy footwork to take advantage any space that may exist either side of his opponent.
Stander has also become increasingly prolific at the breakdown, securing two steals against the All Blacks and obliterating counter ruckers when Ireland were in possession.
These of course were facets we long associated with O’Mahony, who consistently made a nuisance of himself at the breakdown.
As a result, Joe Schmidt has some difficult decisions to make with regard to the make up of Ireland’ backrow, as he does in the backline, where a number of young pretenders have raised their hands in recent weeks.
Continue Reading Below
In this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podast we review Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand and this weekend’s rugby action.
1. Peter O’ Mahony
Prior to suffering a season ending cruciate ligament injury against France during the 2015 World Cup, Peter O’Mahony looked to be among the best backrow forwards in the game.
Ireland immediately felt the weight of his loss against Argentina, and went onto suffer an underwhelming Six Nations campaign. Munster too struggled to cope without the flanker, as their season failed to ignite.
However the emergence of CJ Stander as Ireland’s leading blindside leaves O’Mahony facing a struggle to win his place back in a team where it was once almost certain.
2. Sean O’Brien
Like O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien fell victim to injury last season, allowing for the emergence of van der Flier at openside.
However as O’Brien can play across the backrow, his versatility should see him challenge Jamie Heaslip at number eight. Nevertheless, the “Tullow Tank” will need a massive performance against Canada if he is to win his starting place back.
3. Paddy Jackson
After kicking Ireland to victory over South Africa last summer, it looked as though Paddy Jackson was going to seriously challenge Johnny Sexton for the number 10 jersey in the coming seasons.
However, after being forced to miss Ireland’s trip to Chicago, Joey Carbery has stepped into the breach and could himself dislodge Jackson from Ireland’s match day 23.
This puts a great deal of pressure on the Ulster playmaker, whose kicking has been called into question on more then one occasion in the Pro12 this season.
4. Craig Gilroy
Craig Gilroy is a bit of an enigma for Irish rugby fans. The tricky Ulster winger scored a brilliant debut try against Argentina in November 2012, but has so far only added seven further caps to his name.
Although he was once considered to be a future star, Gilroy is now 25 years of age and faces competition from upstarts like Darren Sweetnam, Niyi Adeolokun, Matt Healy and Jacob Stockdale.
Gilroy needs a massive performance against Canada if he is to retain his place in future.
5. Gary Ringrose
Has there ever been so much expected from a young Irish centre? Not even Brian O’Driscoll seemed to be associated with so much hype during his formative years.
Bursting onto the scene last season, Ringrose scored a fantastic try against Munster but failed to break into the Irish squad despite his consistent form.
His lack of bulk has been cited as a possible reason for this, and the centre looks to be a bigger player this season.
Ringrose has also formed an exciting midfield partnership alongside Robbie Henshaw for Leinster, a combination that could very easily make the transition into the national team.
However, while Ringrose is no doubt talented, his performance against Canada could dictate how soon he will take ownership of the number 13 jersey.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
Heineken Rugby Club celebrates and rewards real supporters who make the game what it is.