With the Six Nations squad announcement on the horizon, Joe Schmidt has the difficult task of selecting the back row personnel from an abundance of quality players.
The problem, albeit a good one to have in context of Irish Rugby, will be that he has to ultimately exclude a number of quality players.
Already proven International performers, it is with little doubt that CJ Stander, Sean O Brien and Peter O Mahoney will be included in the squad due to their form and experience.
Extended squads typically include six allocated positions for back rows. This therefore leaves a number of quality players in the hunt for these three positions. Based on form, this is the trio that could make the final cut.
1. Dan Leavy
Leavy’s form has been nothing short of exceptional, in particular his most recent three performances. His impact off the bench against Exeter rallied a stifled Leinster attack to push on and secure a four-point victory, thus all but securing a home quarter-final providing Leinster pick up points against a struggling Glasgow.
This performance was followed by a man of the match award on St Stephen’s Day against Munster in Thomond Park, bagging himself the opening try partnered with three turnover penalties in key moments of the game as Munster pressed to reduce the early deficit.
Finally, Leavy had a strong opening half against Connacht with two key turnovers in good field positions for the visitors before limping gingerly off the pitch. Thankfully, it was only a suspected back spasm and he will be available for selection. Additionally, Leavy’s versatility to play both blindside and openside adds to his CV. He is in undeniable form and it would come as a shock were he excluded.
2. Jack Conan
Jack Conan’s stats speak for themselves so far this season. The 25-year-old tops Leinster’s charts in most carries, defenders beaten and most tackles in the Guinness PRO14 so far this season. Additionally, he has the most carries in Europe for Leinster with a remarkable 94 in the opening four pool matches. Conan was given his opportunity against Fiji with it being just his fourth international start for the Ireland in which he successfully carried his strong domestic performance into international level.
The former St Gerard’s man is a proven workhorse and has matured into the complete package.
3. Josh Van Der Flier
The Wicklow native has had an equally impressive start to season and similar to Conan and Leavy, his work-rate provides some mind boggling stats. This includes the Pro14 record-breaking tackle count of 34 against Connacht.
Known for his tenacity at the breakdown and his ability to poach ball, Van Der Flier unsurprisingly leads Leinster in turnovers in the Champions Cup this season with nine in four games.
This stat is made even more impressive when taking into account the calibre of the opposition in Leinster’s group. Therefore, he is likely to be given the final spot in the Six Nations back row squad.
Notable Absentees/Injury Report
Rhys Ruddock sustained a Grade 3 tear to his hamstring in Round 3 of the Champions Cup against Exeter just four weeks ago. This is an untimely injury for Ruddock who impressed off the bench in the Autumn Internationals and if fit, he would be most certainly highly considered for the Six Nations squad.
Tommy O’Donnell’s return to consistent game time for Munster after a series of injuries may see him as an outside chance of inclusion. O’Donnell has previously shone off the bench for Ireland in the 2016 Six Nations which suggests that Schmidt rates his abilities.
Jordi Murphy has struggled to regain form since his ACL tear in Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand in Soldier Field. The former Blackrock man has recently signed a two-year deal with Ulster which will see him departing north at the end of the season. This is an acknowledgement of his own pecking order at Leinster and thus a smart move by Murphy with the 2019 World Cup beckoning.
Jamie Heaslip has been sidelined with a long term back injury and doesn’t look likely to return in time for the Six Nations.