Ireland have developed an impressive amount of talent in recent seasons.
Although David Nucifora may not be a popular figure among Irish rugby fans, his draconian policy has forced the Irish provinces to invest in their academies and produce players capable of replacing overseas imports.
This has benefited Irish rugby tremendously, as the provinces must be far more selective in terms of the players they recruit. Furthermore, Nucifora’s doctrine will force the Irish sides to better their scouting and talent identification processes.
This is particularly pertinent given the amount of money now available to Premiership and Top 14 clubs. Although Nucifora’s policy may still be in it’s infancy, we are already seeing it’s effects.
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Instead of signing journeymen to replace the likes of Eoin Reddan and Donncha O’Callaghan, Munster and Leinster instead brought in Jean Kleyn and Jamison Gibson-Park respectively. Both players have so far impressed this season, adding bulk and pace to their respective sides.
Moreover, given that Kleyn and Gibson-Park are only in their mid-twenties, there is every possibility they will both go onto represent Ireland in the future.
In addition, the presence of Isa Nacewa, Hayden Triggs and Zane Kirchner in the Leinster squad, alongside Connacht’s capture of Marnitz Boshoff, forced Leinster to promote Joey Carbery. Prior to Nucifora’s arrival, the talented fly-half would have have probably watched on as a southern hemisphere import played second fiddle to Johnny Sexton.
Although Ulster fans have protested Ruan Pienaar’s impending departure, the South African’s position as the northern province’s primary goal kicker may have stifled Paddy Jackson’s development in that area. Jackson has no doubt benefited from Pienaar’s presence on the field, as have Ulster in general for that matter, but he is yet to become a consistent goal kicker capable of challenging Sexton.
While Nucifora’s policy may not be popular, it has aided in the creation of the largest pool of talent at the disposal of any Irish coach. Competition for places in the Irish squad is now more intense than ever before, with a number of players deemed unlucky to miss out, or underrated in the eyes of some.
[tie_slide]1. Denis Buckley (Connacht)
Like each of his rivals, Denis Buckley is a big ball carrying loosehead. However what differentiates him from James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne in particular is his ability to secure turnovers.
[tie_slide]2. Rob Herring (Ulster)
Although Rob Herring maybe overshadowed by Rory Best at Ulster, the South African hooker remains one of their most consistent performers.
Already capped by Ireland, Herring could make the position his own for both country and province in the forthcoming years.
[tie_slide]3. John Ryan (Munster)
John Ryan has come into his own this season. Although Stephen Archer seemed to be BJ Botha’s successor in waiting, Ryan must now be seen as Munster’s first choice tighthead, after winning consecutive man-of-the-match awards and seeing off both Jack McGrath and Cian Healy against Leinster.
[tie_slide]4. Quinn Roux (Connacht)
Originally signed by Leinster, Quinn Roux joined Connacht on loan in 2014 before joining the Pro12 Champions on a permanent deal.
Although the 25 year-old was a surprise inclusion in the Irish squad that toured South Africa last summer, his sheer size and bulk made him an ideal candidate to combat the physically imposing Springbok second row.
[tie_slide]5. Billy Holland (Munster)
Billy Holland has been around the Munster squad since 2007 and made 137 appearances for the province. Although he has never established himself in their first XV, Holland has taken on a leadership role in the recent seasons.
While he may never be of international standard, Holland is an important member of the Munster squad.
[tie_slide]6. John Muldoon (Connacht)
John Muldoon has become of of Connacht’s rugby’s most iconic players. Even in the hard times the backrow forward remained loyal to the province, and was rewarded with the Pro12 trophy last season.
[tie_slide]7. Jake Heenan (Connacht)
Despite recently qualifying to play for Ireland, Jake Heenan has rarely been mentioned by commentators when discussing the backrow options available to Joe Schmidt.
However Heenan’s athletic ability is key to Connacht being able to employ their faced paced game plan. The former New Zealand under 20 captain is quick to the breakdown and acts as a link player between backs and forwards.
[tie_slide]8. Jack Conan (Leinster)
Strange as it seems, Jack Conan almost forced his inclusion in Ireland’s World Cup squad after a series of impressive performances during the warm up fixtures last year.
However Conan has yet to dislodge Jamie Heaslip at Leinster, and faces competition from the likes of Jordi Murphy and Rhys Rudduck for a place in Leinster’s match day squad – The price of being a specialist eight.
Yet Conan is a big ball carrier and a work horse without possession.
[tie_slide]9. James Hart (Racing 92)
25 year-old James Hart has made a career for himself in the Top 14 after taking the decision to join Grenoble in 2011. His form with Bernard Jackman’s side was such that the scrum half earned a move to Racing 92 last summer.
However, until he returns to Ireland he will remain somewhat of an enigma, and firmly outside of the Irish squad.
[tie_slide]10. Gareth Steenson (Exeter Chiefs)
Another player who made his name playing abroad, Steenson played with the Rotherham Titans and Cornish Pirates before earning his move to the Exeter Chiefs.
Although he won the Premiership’s Golden Boot award in 2016, the 32 year-old will probably never play for Ireland.
[tie_slide]11. Andrew Conway (Munster)
Once thought of as one of Ireland’s most promising wingers, Andrew Conway has fallen behind the likes of Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun in recent seasons.
However, it must be remembered that Conway played as a converted fullback for much of last season after Felix Jones’ retirement.
[tie_slide]12. Craig Ronaldson (Connacht)
It may have taken time for Craig Ronaldson to break into the Connacht starting XV, but now that Robbie Henshaw has left for Leinster, the former Lansdowne playmaker has wasted little time in making the number 12 jersey his own.
Like all other players under Pat Lam, Ronaldson has improved massively and adapted his skill set to suit Connacht’s style of play.
[tie_slide]13. Darren Cave (Ulster)
At one time Darren Cave was considered to be one of the most likely replacements for Brian O’Driscoll in the Irish midfield. However in recent seasons the Ulster player has been overtaken by the likes of Stuart McCloskey, Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall.
Nevertheless, Cave remains a strong runner is possession and should not be forgotten about by either Ireland or Ulster, particularly after being included in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad last year.
[tie_slide]14. Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
After Craig Gilroy scored a brilliant debut try against Argentina in 2012, it seemed a though the winger would go onto to become a fixture in the Irish side.
However since then Gilroy has only made seven further appearances. Nevertheless, he remains one of Ireland’s best broken field runners, and could yet make a return if Schmidt decides to alter the make-up of his backline.
[tie_slide]Darragh Leader (Connacht)
Although Darragh Leader was one of five uncapped players included in the Ireland squad ahead of the 2014 Autumn internationals, the fullback been somewhat forgotten about since then.
Overtaken by Tiernan O’Halloran at Connacht, Leader has had to play second fiddle at provincial level. However he remains a solid performer with a big boot capable of hurting teams from fullback.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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