Ireland have never had as much depth in the back row.
For the first time in a number of seasons, it looks as though Ireland are about to embark on an international series without being hamstrung by series of high profile injuries.
Although a great deal can happen on the injury front between here and 5 November when Ireland take on the All Blacks at Soldier Field in Chicago, the current well being of the squad has revealed the depth of talent available to Joe Schmidt in the backrow.
Twelve months ago Ireland started their World Cup quarter final against Argentina with a backrow consisting of Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip. Hardly Schmidt’s first choice combination, and a trio that was played off the field by a more mobile and efficient Puma selection.
Indeed, given the scarcity of players available on the day, Ireland could only turn to Rhys Rudduck as a late second half substitute.
However since then the likes of Josh van der Flier, Jack Heenan, Sean Reidy, Dan Leavy, Jack O’Donoghue and CJ Stander have all emerged as potential backrow options alongside the returning Tommy O’Donnell, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony.
This leaves Schmidt with a selection headache ahead of the November series. Does the Irish coach maintain the status quo and opt for a combination of Stander, van der Flier and Heaslip? If so, what of O’Brien and O’Mahony?
So far this season, Heaslip been incredibly impressive at the back of the Leinster scrum, Stander has continued to make big carries, while van der Flier remains a constant threat at the breakdown.
To make space for O’Brien, Schmidt will more than likely have to take van der Flier out of the team, something Ireland can’t really afford to do against an All Black back row that includes either Sam Cane or Ardie Savea.
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Yes O’Brien is strong over the ball, but he is not as mobile as any of the three players mentioned above. This is particularity pertinent as Ireland will have to contend with the fast paced game the All Blacks currently employ.
You just have to think back to the 2013 encounter between the sides to understand how valuable opensides like van der Flier are. In the closing seconds of the game Ireland couldn’t get anywhere near the ball after New Zealand were able to win a penalty at the breakdown.
It wasn’t so much that Ireland were not able to turnover possession, but slow it down to allow their defence a few seconds to number up and make it more difficult for New Zealand to gain ground and create overlaps.
An alternative scenario could see O’Brien starting at six instead of Stander, or possibly even in place of Heaslip at number eight. O’Brien’s ball carrying makes him more of a like-for-like replacement for Stander and could bring a physical dimension to the number eight spot.
However, playing both Stander and O’Brien doesn’t bring much variation. While both players can crash the ball over the gain line, neither are necessarily subtle distributors that can fix defenders and release players on the outside.
Ireland will not get close to New Zealand with two identifiable ball carriers stacked across the attacking line.
This is where Heaslip comes into his own, where his athleticism and subtlety make him a link player on the outside. He has demonstrated these skills in the past, making breaks and releasing team-mates inside the 15 meter line against smaller opponents.
There is also the question of what to do with Peter O’Mahony? The Munster captain was arguably the best blindside flanker in the northern hemisphere before suffering a cruciate ligament injury against France at the World Cup.
Not only is he strong over the ball and a big carrier, but O’Mahony is also an underrated lineout option at the tail. Therefore, if he can find form in October, the Munster player will put forward a serious case for inclusion against New Zealand.
This potentially leaves Heaslip, Stander and O’Brien fighting it out for the number eight jersey.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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Read More About: All Blacks, ardie savea, argentina rugby, Chris Henry, cj stander, Dan Leavy, ireland rugby, jack o'donoghue, Jake Heenan, Jamie Heaslip, Joe Schmidt, jordi murphy, josh van der flier, peter o'mahony, sam cane, sean o'brien, Sean Reidy, tommy o'donnell