Jamie Heaslip’s try against Italy aside, the most exciting moment of the 2016 Six Nations for Ireland was the introduction of Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane at Twickenham.
While Ireland suffered defeat to the English, a number of positives were gleaned from the performance. Firstly, Van der Flier appeared to be a ready-made international as his red scrum-cap contested the breakdown at every opportunity.
Meanwhile, McCloskey’s size and ball-playing ability complimented the strengths of his midfield partner Robbie Henshaw. Upon his introduction Dillane was a force to be reckoned with as he almost single-handedly dragged Ireland to the line.
Dillane’s injection of energy cemented his position on the bench thereafter but Van der Flier was dispensed with ahead of the final fixture against the Scots. McCloskey failed to appear for the remainder of the tournament. Joe Schmidt wanted results and he turned to those who had achieved them before.
Schmidt included the trio alongside several uncapped players in his squad for a one-day training camp at Johnstown House last week. Ireland will play South Africa in a three-test series in June.
While all are not guaranteed to travel, it does leave some room for initial experimentation.
15. Jared Payne
For several seasons Rob Kearney was an automatic selection at full-back. The former European Player of the Year was a reliable figure and also had a knack of providing important scores. However, Kearney has suffered with both form and injury of late, leading many to look elsewhere for viable alternatives.
Simon Zebo would appear to be Schmidt’s preference but it was interesting to see Payne and Robbie Henshaw line out in the position for their provinces in the aftermath of the Six Nations. Matt Healy’s recent showing against Grenoble has also added to the debate. But it is Payne who finally deserves the chance to exhibit his strong counter-attacking ability against the Springboks.
14. Matt Healy
Following Tommy Bowe’s injury, Andrew Trimble was justifiably returned to the Irish wing this year. However, the performances of Connacht’s Matt Healy can no longer be ignored. Ireland have lacked a cutting edge in the wider spaces and with the top scorer in the Guinness Pro 12 in their ranks they can pose a significant threat out wide once again.
Healy demonstrated his footballing ability in France last week and can be relied upon to adhere to the defensive systems that Schmidt and Andy Farrell will impose. Craig Gilroy will feel aggrieved, but should Healy’s form be maintained, he cannot be denied.
13. Robbie Henshaw
A victim of his own physique, Henshaw was installed at inside-centre for the 2015 Six Nations and he remained there throughout the World Cup. An injury to Jared Payne prior to facing England in February saw Henshaw finally move outside. But, despite an impressive outing, Schmidt perceived that Ireland had been hurt by Henshaw’s inexperience in the outside channel on the Test stage.
Payne duly returned against the Italians. It is expected that Garry Ringrose will be a regular fixture in time to come but an outing against the physicality of the Springboks in the cauldrons of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth may be too much of a risk for Schmidt. For now Henshaw should be allowed to express his considerable talents in greater space.
12. Stuart McCloskey
Despite his size, McCloskey’s ability with the ball in hand can provide Ireland with an extra dimension from the midfield. An exciting back three will give Schmidt all the more reason to have McCloskey inside ensuring that the supply does not stagnate.
Provided he can convince Schmidt of his defensive attributes and that partnership with Henshaw can be fermented, McCloskey should get the nod ahead of his club-mate Luke Marshall. Stuart Olding’s versatility will provide stern competition on the bench.
11. Keith Earls
Having scored his 17th international try against the Scots, Earls is in a rich vein of form for his country. He faces strong competition from the likes of Zebo and Dave Kearney but Earls’ penchant for the try-line demands his inclusion on the left wing.
Luke Fitzgerald has been omitted from the training squad but he is expected to return against Edinburgh this weekend. Should he do so he may yet find himself back in the mix.
10. Paddy Jackson
Whether Schmidt trusts Paddy Jackson will become eminently clear on the tour of South Africa. Ian Madigan’s regular inclusion on the bench makes sense on account of his ability to put opponents on the back foot in the final moments, but Jackson is arguably the better option at the outset.
His game management and skill set have improved considerably, while Les Kiss has also entrusted him with the captaincy in Rory Best’s absence. Jonny Sexton undoubtedly remains the man in control, but growing concerns for his health and well-being suggests that the St. Mary’s man deserves a few months off.
9. Conor Murray
Firmly established as a leader within the Irish set-up, Conor Murray was consistently one of his country’s best performers throughout the Six Nations. If Jackson is to step into the pivot, Murray’s experience will be integral to how the Ulsterman performs.
With Eoin Reddan surely approaching the end of his international tenure, Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath will battle it out to become Murray’s deputy. McGrath is a tremendous prospect and will argue that his time has come, but Marmion’s contribution to a flying Connacht side earns him a place on the bench.
8. CJ Stander
Given that he has been rarely injured throughout his career, Ireland have never needed to looked to other than Jamie Heaslip at the base of the scrum. Heaslip was once again to the fore of Ireland’s cause in the Six Nations and rose above the calls for CJ Stander’s inclusion at his expense.
Yet Heaslip is at the tail end of a long World Cup season and his durability will be tested – it is doubtful whether it would be wise to do so. Stander is more than capable of filling the void. Having been overlooked by the country of his birth, he will be motivated for the Springbok challenge – a devastating prospect.
7. Josh van der Flier
In an ideal world, the Heaslip-O’Brien-Stander axis would whet any rugby fan’s appetite, but Ireland have been crying out for a pure openside for many years. David Wallace and Sean O’Brien have carried out the role with distinction, but this generally came at the expense of other attributes.
Having slotted in seamlessly against the English and Italians, the tour presents Van der Flier with an opportunity to cement his place. Tommy O’Donnell should expect a place amongst the substitutes.
6. Sean O’Brien
With Van der Flier to contest the nitty-gritty at the breakdown, O’Brien’s ball-carrying strengths can be best utilised when his energy levels are more plentiful.
Having endured an injury-stricken campaign, O’Brien will be keen to end his season on a positive note, particularly if he wishes to be considered for the long-term captaincy of the side. Peter O’Mahony will be waiting in the wings with similar concerns.
5. Devin Toner
Paul O’Connell’s departure from the scene, though keenly felt, has been softened by Devin Toner’s assumption of control at the lineout.
He, therefore, represents Ireland’s best opportunity of dismantling the Springbok set-piece. Questions that were initially asked of the Meath giant upon his introduction to the Irish side have been answered to such an extent that he is now a cult hero amongst the Irish following and an ever-present for Schmidt.
4. Iain Henderson
Should Sean O’Brien fail to recover his fitness in time for the tour, the inclusion of Henderson in the Irish pack will become a matter of necessity for Schmidt.
Donnacha Ryan responded ferociously to the emergence of Dillane during the Six Nations, but the challenge provided by the rampaging Ulster lock may prove to be a step too far for the Munster man – he will nevertheless remain an important figure in the squad.
3. Tadgh Furlong
In recent weeks Wexford’s Tadgh Furlong has usurped Mike Ross’ squatting rights in the Leinster front-row. Marty Moore was once deemed to be the international tighthead in waiting, but his career has stalled and Furlong has taken full advantage.
Finlay Bealham has been a surprise contender but the ability of the Australian-born prop to cover both sides of the scrum will secure his place on the bench.
2. Rory Best
Given that he contested the early part of his international career with Jerry Flannery, it is quite remarkable how Rory Best has amassed 94 caps for his country. That experience will be a vital component if Ireland are to challenge the Springboks in June.
Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin continue to breathe down his neck but Best’s recent form suggests that he has no intention of letting up just yet. As with Sexton and Heaslip, Best has endured a lengthy season but now with the captaincy in tow, Best will be keen to travel.
1. Jack McGrath
The two Healys in the Irish squad have proceeded along different paths this year. Ever since Cian sustained an ankle injury while on tour with the British and Irish Lions in 2013, the prop has struggled to maintain the fitness and form that saw him become one of the best prop’s in the world.
Jack McGrath has since become the established first-choice loosehead and this will continue in South Africa.
- Sean Cronin
- David Kilcoyne
- Finlay Bealham
- Ultan Dillane
- Tommy O’Donnell
- Kieran Marmion
- Ian Madigan
- Simon Zebo
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