Munster and Ireland rugby fans are still coming to terms with the news this weekend that Simon Zebo is set to leave these shores for France at the end of the season.
The 27-year-old has decided to make the switch following the IRFU’s inability to match the offers coming from the Top 14 and he now looks set to link up with former Munster teammates Ronan O’Gara and Donnacha Ryan at Racing 92.
The move has cast the full-back’s Ireland career into doubt as, with the exception of Johnny Sexton, it has long been the case that overseas players have not been considered for national side selection.
Whether the IRFU and head coach Joe Schmidt will make another exception for Zebo remains to be seen but having set the precedent once before, there is a chance they will do so again for the dynamic and dangerous back.
Should Zebo be cast into Ireland exile, however, all is not lost for Schmidt and the full-back position. Despite the gaping hole left by Zebo and the injury-enforced absence of the ageing Rob Kearney, there is much to be excited about when one reviews the options for who can now step up and into the No.15 jersey, if needed.
The provincial academies have been hard at work rolling out future stars of the game and over the last few seasons a bumper crop of full-back talent has emerged.
3. Joey Carbery
In Leinster, New Zealand-born Ireland international Joey Carbery has shown head coach Leo Cullen and Leinster fans that he can mix it up with the best from the heart of the backline.
Having emerged last season as a potential successor to Jonathan Sexton at out-half, the 21-year-old has found himself switching to full-back this year as cover for Kearney, delivering assured and eye-catching performances that suggest his future may also lie at No.15.
Having already been a part of Ireland’s historic victory over the All Blacks last year, Carbery will certainly be adding to his international experience in the coming season. The only question is in what position.
2. Tiernan O’Halloran
Connacht have been reaping the benefits of O’Halloran’s services since as far back as 2009, when he was part of the youth academy.
Until as recently as last season, the now 26-year-old has been flying just below the international radar due to the duopoly of Zebo and Kearney at full-back.
Steady progression, however, has seen O’Halloran emerge from the shadows and has put his name on the map, with two tries in six appearances for the Ireland senior side since his debut in June of 2016.
At 6′ 2″ and almost 100kg, O’Halloran is something of a wrecking ball that runs through, as well as around, defences. His presence gives Ireland powerful options in a position that, until now, has deferred to the evasive sidesteps of Zebo and Kearney.
1. Andrew Conway
Conway has been with Munster since 2013, having switched from Leinster after three years in the professional ranks. Utilised primarily on the wing, the 26-year-old has also demonstrated his abilities at full-back on more than one occasion.
Unflappable and unerring under the high ball, Conway is among the best in the business at securing the ball from the air and making ground before opponents can react.
The versatile back received his Ireland senior call-up earlier this year when he was named in Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad for the first two rounds and toured again this summer when Ireland travelled to Japan.
There, he again featured and was given the chance to show his credentials at full-back, in place of the injured Zebo and it is likely he will assume those duties on a full-time basis for Munster next season when Zebo departs.
On review, Zebo’s departure will be a blow for the Limerick-based province and also for Ireland. The Top 14 operates an unrelenting schedule that barely slows to allow for international duties.
While he may still be considered for Ireland in the future, it is likely that the likes of Carbery, O’Halloran and Conway will all be in the mix for increased game time at No. 15.
So, as Ireland look set to lose one star, three more in the making will now look to shine the brightest.
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