Competition for the Irish backrow has arguably never been stronger.
There was Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy, Simon Easterby and David Wallace all competing for spots in the mid-2000s.
Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Wallace and Sean O’Brien battled for positions in the build-up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, while Peter O’Mahony quickly succeeded Ferris after the fallout of that very tournament.
O’Mahony joined Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in Ireland’s ever impressive backrow, and while the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Chris Henry, Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy have all come in and plugged holes when they’ve been called upon, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip have more or less had a stranglehold on the Irish backrow for three seasons between 2013 and 2015.
However, last year we saw CJ Stander break up the long-time triumvirate and assert himself as an immovable force on the blindside of Ireland’s scrum.
With Sean O’Brien’s availability in question for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Scotland next month, we’ve compiled a power ranking of Ireland’s top ten backrowers without the Tullow native.
10. John Muldoon
Muldoon recently signed a new contract with Connacht that will keep him at the Sportsgrounds until the end of the 2018 season. The Eagles number eight is in his 14th season and is still playing some brilliant rugby for the Westerners although he won’t be in any danger of breaking into Joe Schmidt’s squad anytime soon.
9. Jack O’Donoghue
O’Donoghue has been brilliant for Munster anytime he’s been afforded legitimate playing time, but unfortunately for the young Waterford backrower, game time has been hard to come by at times for O’Donoghue with the presence of Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander at Munster.
O’Donoghue’s biggest challenge going forward will be displacing any of the aforementioned from the Munster pack, but his performances have been promising and are impressing many within Irish rugby.
8. Sean Reidy
An unsung hero in an Ulster pack that has been underwhelming in recent months. Reidy provides real punch and power with ball in hand and has a dogged work rate that often sees him fight his way over opposition gainlines.
The New Zealander made his Ireland debut against South Africa last summer although it’s hard to see him adding to his solitary cap over the next few months with so many talented backrowers ahead of him.
7. Tommy O’Donnell
A tireless worker and a player you often wonder how he only has 12 caps. A fierce tackler, deceptively quick and decent over the top of the ball, O’Donnell is a prototypical openside flanker. However, the Tipperary native is seemingly always battling injury and has subsequently slipped further than he probably should have in Ireland’s backrow rankings.
6. Iain Henderson
Although he’s played the majority of his rugby in the second row, and will most likely continue to do so over the course of the Six Nations, Henderson has been playing a lot of six lately and definitely has the versatility and capabilities to play there.
A willing ball carrier and powerful runner, Henderson will almost definitely feature in Ireland’s pack next month, it just depends where.
5. Jack Conan
Conan has enjoyed a brilliant start to the year and put in an outstanding Man of the Match performance against Montpellier last week at the RDS. Conan scored a hat-trick in the 57-3 drubbing in Dublin and followed it up this week with a spirited display against Castres on Friday.
Conan will have undoubtedly boosted his Ireland chances dramatically with his performances over the last month but he will still find it hard to crack the match day squad with what lays in front of him, and that’s without including Sean O’Brien.
4. Peter O’Mahony
A player that many would have labelled as a future Ireland captain at one point, O’Mahony has been superb for Munster since being snubbed by Ireland in November.
The Munster captain has put his shoulder troubles behind him and won’t be too far off a recall to the starting pack if he can sustain his level of performance.
3. Josh van der Flier
van der Flier has proven to be one of the most consistent performers in Irish rugby over the last few months with a string of impressive displays for both Leinster and Ireland.
The increasingly impressive openside was undeniable in Ireland’s November series and he’ll be a genuine contender to start in Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Scotland next month, especially if there’s question marks over Sean O’Brien’s fitness.
2. Jamie Heaslip
The World Rugby Player of the Year nominee has carried his sparkling form from last year into 2017 and remains one of the best backrowers in Ireland.
Heaslip has really established himself as an ultra consistent performer and a player that has only seemed to improve with age, and seemingly with the presence of our number one.
1. CJ Stander
Never in doubt. Ireland’s most consistent performer since Paul O’Connell and a player that storms through opposition defences at a relentless pace. Never stops working. Never stops carrying. Never stops leading.
Undoubtedly the best performing backrower in Ireland and one of the very best in the world at the moment.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena