As round three of the 2016 Six Nations approaches and following head coach Joe Schmidt’s squad announcement for the trip to Twickenham, we take a look at the greatest players Ireland has produced in the professional era.
The current Ireland set-up is severely hampered by a long list of injuries. The likes of Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony remain out of action for the foreseeable future.
Schmidt has been boosted this week with return of Mike Ross and Cian Healy to the front row but they are down on game time this year and so will inevitably be a little rusty. The availability of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo again will give the Schmidt more attacking options also.
While we analyse the team that Schmidt’s picked for this weekend’s game, let’s look at and fall out over this writer’s greatest Ireland XV of the professional era.
1 – Cian Healy
When fit, Healy is a devastatingly beautiful thing to watch. Solid in the scrum and a powerful ball carrier and line breaker, his return to the Irish camp is a welcomed addition.
2 – Keith Wood
Ireland’s first professional captain and still a yardstick to be measured against when it comes to leadership. In 58 appearances for Ireland, Woodie touched down for 13 tries. For a hooker this is truly phenomenal.
3 – John Hayes
John ‘The Bull’ Hayes became Ireland’s first 100-cap man. A monster of a man at 6ft 4in and 128kg, he will always be remembered for his tears during the national anthem in Croke Park in 2007, when they destroyed an England side out to spoil the party.
4 – Donncha O’Callaghan
O’Callaghan became an ever-present fixture in the second row of the Ireland pack. Big, reliable and a key man in the lineout, O’Callaghan wore the green for Ireland 94 times and was part of two British and Irish Lions tours.
5 – Paul O’Connell (C)
Ireland’s and Munster’s inspirational leader announced his retirement from rugby only this month and we are all still reeling from the loss. In a long career defined by huge performances and unwavering leadership, for Munster, Ireland and the Lions, there is just no replacing the talismanic Limerick man.
6 – Stephen Ferris
Injury cut short the Ulsterman’s career in 2014 following successive ankle injuries, but when fit Ferris changed the way flankers play the game. A solid brace for the scrum and a devastating tackler and ball carrier. When injury struck in 2012 Ferris had amassed over 100 caps for Ulster and 35 for Ireland.
7 – Sean O’Brien
The Tullow Tank, like Ferris, is an explosive ball carrier and line breaker. An absolute nightmare for opponents, O’Brien has a talent for finding and making gaps in defences.
He has endured eighteen months of injuries (shoulder and hamstring) and is currently one of Ireland’s more worrying injury concerns. It is hoped he can regain his fitness and return soon to his barnstorming ways.
8 – Jamie Heaslip
Heaslip is a constant fixture at the pack of the scrum both for Ireland and Leinster. With a highlight reel of ball carries and line breaks, it is his unseen work that largely goes unnoticed by the untrained eye.
A nuisance at the breakdown and in the maul, this championship has seen more of his ball carrying since the arrival of newly-minted Irishman CJ Stander to the squad at flanker.
9 – Conor Murray
This was a tricky one. The Munster man took over at number 9 from fellow Munster man and legend Peter Stringer in 2011 and has grown into a leader of the team.
Murray is the new scrum-half mould – 6ft 2in and 95kg – he is known for his pinpoint box kicking, line breaking and general control of the game. At 26, he still has his best years ahead of him and looks set to become one of Ireland’s greatest ever scrum-halves, up there with Stringer himself.
10 – Ronan O’Gara
Probably another contentious one here. O’Gara has been named ahead of Sexton for his longevity and toughness. Not the biggest or strongest of no. 10s, O’Gara was often singled out by line breaking opponents.
While the man took more hits than most could handle, O’Gara always dusted himself down and was able to kick a penalty or conversion from practically anywhere within 55 metres. Hugely reliable under pressure, it was his drop goal against Wales, the final kick of the game, that sealed Ireland’s Grand Slam victory in 2009.
11 – Denis Hickie
One of the few from the early professional years, Hickie scored a ridiculous 29 tries in 62 appearances for Ireland. He was the long-standing leading try scorer until Brian O’Driscoll surpassed him in 2008.
12 – Gordon D’Arcy
D’Arcy is known as one half of probably the best centre partnership in the rugby world. A clear try scorer and line breaker, it was his defensive work that helped release O’Driscoll on many a scything run through the opposition’s defence. He is often not credited for the brilliance of his work off the ball.
13 – Brian O’Driscoll
Ireland’s leading try scorer (46) and most capped player (133), O’Driscoll is the finest rugby talent ever produced in Ireland and perhaps the world. As an attacking centre he terrorised oppositions who simply could not keep up with his offloading, ball carrying and line breaking ways. Three years on from his retirement in 2013, his genius on the field is still sorely missed
14 – Tommy Bowe
The flying Ulsterman is one of Ireland’s finest wingers and for a time had threatened to challenge O’Driscoll’s try scoring record. However, leg injuries over the last few seasons have blighted his career, most recently a serious knee injury suffered at the 2015 World Cup. It remains to be seen if Bowe will return to the game.
15 – Rob Kearney
Full-back was a toss-up between Kearney and Girvan Dempsey. Dempsey was Ireland’s go-to full back for much of the early 2000s. Kearney has been chosen over Dempsey’s 82 caps and 19 tries, for his sureness under the high ball and his ball carrying abilities. A highlight to date for Kearney is his length-of-the-field try following an intercepted pass against New Zealand in the heart breaking last gasp 22-24 loss in 2013
So there it is, Ireland’s professional era dream team.
Let the arguments begin…
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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