Ireland have never had so much depth in the backrow.
Not so long ago Irish rugby fans hoped and prayed nothing would happen to either Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes in the weeks leading up to a big international.
Such was the lack of depth at the time, Ireland would have been forced to select players who were nowhere near the required standard and hope to get by. How times have changed.
Although Ireland are currently passing through a period of transition, Joe Schmidt can select from the deepest pool of talent this country has ever produced.
This is particularly the case at openside, where the IRFU’s often criticised policy of restricting the number of overseas players the provinces can sign has forced them to better their academy structures and promote from within.
[tie_slide]Sean O’Brien (Leinster)
Although Sean O’Brien might be one of Ireland’s most recognisable players, injuries impacted upon his career and allowed his competitors stake their claim to the jersey.
Nevertheless, the former European Player of The Year remains a potent ball carrier, and is central to Leinster’s game plan when fit.
Despite not having featured since suffering a hamstring injury against France last February, for most O’Brien remains Ireland’s most potent openside.
[tie_slide]Dan Leavy (Leinster)
What a year it has been for 22 year-old Dan Leavy. 12 months ago the flanker made the most of the fact that Leinster’s top internationals were away at the World Cup, making an impression during their early season fixtures.
This season he has done the same, switching between six and seven with ease. Such is Leavy’s form, some commentators are tipping him for inclusion in the Ireland squad for the November internationals. Five turnovers in Leinster’s opening five games in testament to this.
However the November series may come a little too soon for the big flanker.
[tie_slide]Tommy O’Donnell (Munster)
Perhaps Ireland’s unluckiest player, Tommy O’Donnell has bounced back from a number of serious injuries and put himself back in contention for a place in Ireland’s starting XV.
Indeed, had he not dislocated his hip against Wales last summer, O’Donnell could have firmly established himself in the Irish back row.
Instead he was forced to sit out the early months of last season and watch Josh van der Flier play himself into contention for Ireland.
[tie_slide]Josh van der Flier (Leinster)
Josh van der Flier took full advantage of the injuries suffered by O’Brien and O’Donnell last season, first impressing for Leinster before breaking into the Irish team during the Six Nations.
Although most were surprised by van der Flier’s inclusion against England, his ability to slow English ball at the breakdown and aid in the production of quick ball for Ireland saw him become one of the stand out performers in the fixture.
Such is his current standing, van der Flier could force O’Brien’s inclusion on the blindside for Leinster.
[tie_slide]Jake Heenan (Connacht)
A former New Zealand Under-20s Captain, Heenan certainly has the pedigree to play international rugby for Ireland.
After becoming Irish qualified last June, the Connacht openside has put himself in the shop window for selection this autumn.
Possessing soft hands and an eye for a gap, Heenan is a traditional rangey openside who acts as a link between backs and forwards. Moreover, his supports lines have seen Heenan become a regular try scorer and provider for Connacht.
However Heenan susceptibility to injury has held him back in the past and could impact on his ability to break into the Irish squad on the future.
[tie_slide]Sean Reidy (Ulster)
Auckland born Sean Reidy qualifies to play for Ireland through his grandfather who originally hailed from county Kerry.
The flanker already has one cap to his name after he was a surprise inclusion in the Irish squad that toured South Africa last summer.
Like van der Flier, Reidy made the most of the fact that many of his colleagues were away at the World Cup to establish himself in Ulster’s starting XV.
This season Reidy has built on his reputation, featuring in all six of Ulster’s Pro12 fixtures so far this campaign.
To date Reidy has also completed more tackles than any other player in the league, 79, underlining his importance to Ulster’s cause.
[tie_slide]Jordi Murphy (Leinster)
Not too long ago Jordi Murphy was being touted as Ireland’s next backrow superstar. However in recent seasons his career has stalled.
Although it must be said that Murphy has suffered from a troublesome groin injury, he has been overtaken by his rivals.
Perhaps his versatility has also impacted on Murphy’s ability to grow in one particular position. He isn’t as strong over the ball as van der Flier or O’Donnell, neither is he a big ball carrier like O’Brien or a linkman like Heenan.
Consequently, for now 25 year-old ranks behind each of his competitors as he embarks upon what could be a career defining season.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena