Thoughts of the disappointing World Cup for Ireland won’t subside. The provinces struggled desperately on the opening weekends in Europe with key players failing to haul themselves out of their own personal malaise.
With the first round of interprovincial clashes just completed its time to take stock and assess the options available to Joe Schmidt ahead of next year’s Six Nations. Schmidt may need to freshen things up a bit and between the tried and trusted, and those on the outside who are making the loudest shouts for inclusion, here is a potential starting XV against Wales on February 7th.
15. Simon Zebo
The Munster man was an underused figure at the World Cup. He didn’t feature at the business end despite looking confident and dangerous during the pool when he was given an opportunity. While Rob Kearney would edge an aerial between these two, Zebo offers a more wide ranging threat in attack.
14. Luke Fitzgerald
With Tommy Bowe injured, and Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble struggling badly for form, the right wing berth is crying out to be claimed. Fitzgerald is a firm favourite of Schmidt’s and if he can stay injury free has the potential to be a potent attacking weapon, as his cameo against Argentina proved.
13. Jared Payne
The 30 year old’s World Cup was cut short through injury and despite not yet featuring for Ulster this season he is the obvious choice to return to midfield once fit. He sets the defensive line very well, and although his attacking game is limited his physicality aids him crossing the gain line more often than not.
12. Robbie Henshaw
Despite the fact he’s only entering his second season as a fully-fledged international, the 22 year old is already approaching first name on the team sheet territory. He still isn’t a fully polished diamond but with his stout defence and high work rate he is already hands down the best inside centre in Ireland.
11. Keith Earls
Often a victim of his own versatility, the Limerick man gets shunted all across the back line both with province and country. A deadly finisher, the 28 year old is a potentially world class winger. He filled in admirably in the centre in Ireland’s two biggest World Cup games but his talents are best utilised on the wing.
10. Jonathan Sexton
He has started this season a long way behind the vintage Sexton we had become accustomed to, but as there are no viable alternatives, and his potential when on form far outweighs any provincial rivals, injury permitting his selection is a no brainier. Needs to work on his clutch kicking, as too often big kicks go astray.
9. Conor Murray
Struggled badly behind a beaten pack against Argentina and has regressed slightly over the last year or so. Has been showing signs of recovering his form back in the red with Munster and his relationship with Sexton is crucial to this Irish team. Needs to improve his box kicking accuracy.
1. Jack McGrath
The Leinster man has grown immeasurably over the last couple of seasons, and is Ireland’s form loose head at the moment. Huge work rate in defence and solid at the set piece, the 25 year old has developed into a player of real international class. Is in much better nick than Cian Healy and deserves the starting role.
2. Rory Best
Best has at times struggled at the line out, but similar to Sexton at out half, the lack of top level alternatives mean he’s likely to remain in situ over the coming season. An experienced head ,who is a valuable breakdown operator, in a transitioning team, could also assume captaincy in the post Paulie era.
3. Marty Moore
Mike Ross still retains the faith of Leo Cullen in Leinster but it’s time for a change on the international scene. Moore may not look like your archetypal all action athlete but he can anchor a scrum and that’s what Ireland need him for. Has to establish himself at provincial level but Ireland’s next long term tight head.
4. Donnacha Ryan
Ireland toiled against Argentina but the lack of mobility up front saw them dismantled in the key collision areas. Devin Toner may offer a safety blanket at line out time but his overall work around the field falls short of what’s expected for a modern day second row. If Ryan can stay fit his abrasiveness will be a huge asset.
5. Iain Henderson
Exploded onto the scene in the World Cup and even presented enough evidence to suggest life after Paul O’Connell may not be as gloomy as once feared. He’s a huge threat with ball in hand and has a boundless energy all around the park. Offers a strong outlet as a ball carrier in a pack not overflowing with options.
6. Sean O’Brien
More used to wearing the 7 shirt, a shift to the currently unoccupied 6 could bring about a change of fortunes for a player whose game has largely stalled, partly thanks to injury, over the past two years. O’Brien was phenomenal against France and his idiotic suspension greatly hindered Ireland’s semi-final prospects.
7. Chris Henry
Whether he likes it or not Joe Schmidt will have to reshuffle his back row due to injury to Peter O’Mahony and Ulster man Henry has been Schmidt’s go to back-up player throughout his Irish reign. With O’Mahony out, Henry is Ireland’s most threatening breakdown player on the ground.
8. CJ Stander
Has shown time and time again he’s irrefutably the best number 8 in Ireland at the minute, and has been for the year and a half. Joe Schmidt doesn’t usually drop new players straight into his team from the get go but surely has to make an exception for South African born Munster man who has been ripping up trees down South.
16. Sean Cronin.
Can offer impact and change of pace of the bench.
17. Cian Healy.
No longer ahead of the rest, but still has a role to play.
18. Tadhg Furlong.
Needs more exposure to hon skills, but has potential.
19. Dave Foley.
Another abrasive Munster lock with a shed load of determination.
20. Rhys Ruddock.
Can cover all three back row spots which makes him valuable.
21. Kieran Marmion.
Time to be given a chance, best of the next generation.
22. Ian Madigan.
Not getting the rugby required to challenge for a starting spot but is most rounded reserve option.
23. Craig Gilroy.
Can slot into any of the back three roles. With speed to burn, he’s an excellent impact option.
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Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.