Following the successful Six Nations win, many people have suggested we are entering the golden age of Irish rugby. Looking at the abundance of talent at Joe Schmidt’s disposal, one finds it hard to disagree. Here are five players that were not involved in this year’s Six Nations but will be central to Ireland’s plans going forward.
Just after you eat a huge meal, you have to sit down, relax, digest what has just gone before you and savour the joyful experience. However, you cannot afford to rest on laurels, you have to eat again. One meal that fills you to the brim won’t suffice to keep you alive and well evermore. After gorging on an intense feast of physical and attritional rugby for the past seven weeks, we can now sit back and review the tournament from a more balanced position. Removed from the white heat of battle. Time to digest. Ireland edged a terrifically close tournament, the outcome of which remained up in the air until the dying seconds of the concluding game in Paris. Ireland won on points difference by virtue of scoring the most tries (18) and having the meanest defence. They conceded only four tries and 49 points in total across five games.
Like every meal, the ingredients change from dish to dish and while the 2014 serving was so satisfying, master chef Schmidt now has to start planning toward his 2015 main course knowing he will definitely be without one of his key ingredients. He will no longer be able to rely on a pinch of Brian O’Driscoll’s magic or a dash of his bravado to liven up his cocktail. Schmidt relied on his main staples throughout his debut campaign in charge of Ireland, using only 18 different players from the start across the full fixture list. After a demoralising season last year under Declan Kidney, and two disappointing defeats in the Autumn series, the Kiwi had to instil a winning mentality into a squad who seemed sapped of confidence. The experimentation would have to wait. This summer’s tour to Argentina offers Schmidt and his coaching staff the perfect chance to assess the alternative options as they look to cook up a winning formula that will take Ireland through next season’s Six Nations defence and the World Cup later in the year.
What is very promising from Schmidt’s point of view is that even having won the Six Nations in his first year the squad looks set to get stronger moving forward. Having won the competition with as many as six first choice players unavailable, the future looks extremely bright for Schmidt and his Irish team. Here are five players that didn’t see action in this successful campaign but will be central to Ireland’s hopes moving forward:
1. Sean O’ Brien
Gone but most certainly not forgotten this year. For a variety of reasons O’Brien’s name was never far from people’s lips throughout the tournament. Initially there was the question as to how well Ireland could cope without their most destructive ball carrier, but because of the commendable way in which the backrow unit operated in his absence, the question became where is the best place to position him when he returns. There is no doubting he will be reinstated into the backrow once fit and ready, it’s just a matter of where.
The Tullow Tank vacated the number 7 shirt and odds are that is where he will return, especially as it is hard to see Schmidt dropping his vice captain Jamie Heaslip. However, given how effectively Peter O’ Mahony and Chris Henry worked together at the breakdown it would be a harsh call to drop either of them. Heaslip does not have the same ability to smash through tackles as the human wrecking ball O’ Brien, so his position could come under threat.
2. Simon Zebo
It looked obvious throughout the tournament that Joe Schmidt isn’t entirely convinced by the Munster winger. While everyone was crying out for his involvement, on the bench at least, Schmidt remained steadfast in his refusal to incorporate the 24-year-old’s talents into his squad. Zebo doesn’t have the same workman-like attitude of the current wings Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney, but he is on another planet in what he can bring with ball in hand compared to those two.
Zebo is a pure maverick and has the ability to create something out of nothing whenever he touches the ball. Especially with Brian O’Driscoll’s creative talents no longer available to the team, the need for a sparkling attacker will become more apparent. Zebo has some work to do to gain the coaches trust, but when he does he will bring an electricity to the team that was sorely missed in this campaign.
3. Robbie Henshaw
Replacing a legend and an icon is a thankless job, but that is the task facing the Connacht youngster. Most of the money seems to be on the soon-to-be-nationalised Kiwi Jared Payne slotting in as O’ Driscoll’s replacement but with him not being available until November, Henshaw could use the Argentinean tour to get a headstart on his competition. The 20-year-old has shown good adaptability this season as he moves between full back and centre for his province and has three international caps to his name already.
Henshaw is far from the finished article but has been involved in all the training camps this season and is sure to have gleaned some worthwhile information off BOD in that time. There will naturally enough be teething problems as Ireland look for a long term replacement in a position that has been sealed up for 15 seasons, but management and supporters alike must remain patient. Darren Cave will be looking to fill the void left by Drico also, but Henshaw is unquestionably the best looking prospect in the long term and the sooner he gets his chance to stake a claim the better.
4. Donnacha Ryan
A veteran in comparison to some of the other tyros on this list but the Munster lock is a man on mission to burst back into the first team. Ryan is currently having an injury ravaged season having been essentially out of action since October, yet he returned towards the end of the Six Nations. Unfortunately for Ryan, he could not force his way back into the new coach’s plans.
Ryan may not bring the same height to the second row as the current incumbent of the number 4 jersey Devin Toner, but he has a much better all round game. The Tipperary man has 28 caps to his name since making his debut in 2008 and at 30 is still very much at peak age for second row forwards. His ability to play 6 highlights the athleticism he possess and he is very much built in the Brad Thorn/Nathan Hines mould that Schmidt was so fond of during his time with Leinster.
5. Stuart Olding
The young Ulsterman may not be a household name, but he is a potential future superstar in green. The 21-year-old is currently sidelined with a knee injury having ruptured his cruciate in November. The Belfast back has great versatility but it looks like inside centre is the position he will thrive in moving forward.
An outhalf in his youth, Olding has excellent distribution skills and despite his relatively small physique he is very strong in contact. Gordon D’Arcy may have a few more miles in the legs but his career is much closer to the end than the start and while worries persist over Luke Marshall and his susceptibility to concussion, there could be an open door for Olding when he returns. He was capped in the Lion-less tour to North America last summer so the management are clearly aware of his capabilities.
In addition, the likes of Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Craig Gilroy and the aforementioned Luke Marshall whose injuries kept them out of contention for this tournament are due to return in some capacity. While Jordi Murphy, Tommy O’ Donnell, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson all gained valuable minutes in the international environment, which means the future of Irish rugby is in very good health health, even permitting the loss of the great Brian O’Driscoll. There is a green stew simmering away nicely in Schmidt’s kitchen right now.
There is also the glowering figure of Steven Ferris’s sizeable shadow rising in the background and he will be vying for a spot in the backrow when he gets back to full fitness. Given his horrible run of injury woes, we will give him time to prove his fitness and get back up to speed before bringing him into the reckoning, however.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.
Simon Zebo By Fearless Fred [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.