With Jared Payne set to miss the 2016 RBS Six Nations, Ireland must find a new centre partnership ahead of this season’s campaign.
A number of candidates have emerged in recent weeks, and Joe Schmidt will have his work cut out for him to decide who will take up the mantle ahead of the opener against Wales.
Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall, Luke Fitzgerald and Garry Ringrose are among those to impress, while Keith Earls and Darren Cave will also be eager to add to their international honours. Robbie Henshaw will also return within the coming weeks, and it’d be a huge surprise if the Connacht centre didn’t retain his starting berth.
So it looks like there’s one spot free; whose going to take it? Here are the options.
One of the few players to emerge from the World Cup defeat to Argentina with some credit, Fitzgerald has carried strong form into the Pro 12. Despite Leinster’s European struggles, Fitzgerald was often a rare bright spark in the midfield – evasive footwork, solid defence, and a high work-rate all prominent features of his displays.
Hugely unlucky with injuries over the course of his career, the former Blackrock College pupil divides opinion. However, when on form, his class is undeniable. Also comfortable on the wing, it makes him an enticing option for the 23 shirt, if nothing between 11-14.
The 20-year-old has long been touted for greatness, and has finally progressed into the senior set-up at Leinster. After taking to the 13 shirt with ease, many have called for Ringrose to scale the ranks into the Irish set-up.
Despite little experience it seems as if Ringrose would slot into international rugby without much difficulty – he’s a special type of player in that regard. He’s extremely comfortable on the ball, off-the ball, and he reads the game excellently. Nothing seems to faze the young centre.
Calls for international honours may seem premature, but he has time on his side and will likely prove his worth in an Irish training camp. A starting berth may be a risk, but it’s a calculated one. Ringrose will be capped sooner rather than later, the only question is if it’s a season too early.
Capped in the 2013 Six Nations, Marshall has had his fair share of injury woes since. However, after an extended run in Ulster’s midfield this season, Marshall has shown the form that saw him worthy of a call-up three years ago.
Still only 24, Marshall is not to be forgotten. He’s slight in stature, but punches above his weight in defence and is an extremely talented footballer. McCloskey may have taken the headlines, but the Ballymena man has been equally impressive alongside him.
Ulster’s standout performer this season is a hugely exciting prospect. Ireland don’t often produce centres the size of McCloskey, and the Bangor man is much more than a crash ball merchant, with footwork and pace to match. He’s the modern centre that Ireland have craved.
At 6 ft 4 in and nearly 17 stone, McCloskey cuts a hugely imposing figure. A constant source of go forward ball who punctures defences for fun. He has the side-step and vision to add another dimension to his game.
He’s been brilliant for Ulster, and the thought of a Henshaw and McCloskey midfield is a mouth-watering prospect.
While his best position is a constant debate, it’s obvious that Schmidt considers the Munster man a viable option in the 13 channel after the World Cup. He’s put in some good shifts in the jersey over the last year, and that won’t be forgotten by Schmidt.
However, Earls’ claim for a starting spot simply isn’t as strong as some of his competitors. McCloskey, Fitzgerald and Ringrose have all impressed over the last six weeks, while Earls hasn’t hit the form he showed earlier in the season. Munster’s backline has struggled, and Earls hasn’t been able to stand out thus far.
Schmidt doesn’t drop players on a whim, and Earls will feature in Ireland’s 30-man squad, barring injury. But in such a competitive environment, it’s hard to know what role he’ll play – he could have more influence on the wing than the middle of the field this time out.
Currently out injured but nearing a return, Cave won’t walk back into the Ulster team, which gives him little time to impress. They have a catalogue of midfielders on their books, with a depth that is unrivalled by their Irish counterparts. McCloskey, Marshall, Cave, Payne, Olding and Arnold are all talented footballers and options in their own right.
A tumultuous international career aside, Cave has been a consistent performer for Ulster over the years. He has experience and is a natural centre; something Schmidt’s other options lack. While he isn’t as exciting an option, he is practical one. He’ll make the training squad, and hope to remind Schmidt of his value as he seeks to finally nail down a starting position.
It’s the start of a new World Cup cycle and while Schmidt is never one to make wholesale changes, it’s time to look at the next generation of Irish internationals.
Fitzgerald is a practical solution to the search for Henshaw’s midfield partner, but the real decision must be between McCloskey and Ringrose. Both young players, both in excellent form, and both have a long future in the green of Ireland. With three talented young options, Schmidt will have this headache for years to come.
While Ringrose has teased us with his brilliance over the last few weeks, McCloskey has been fantastic up north for over a year. It’s time for him to take the next step, and show us what he can do in the international arena, wearing the 12 shirt alongside Henshaw.
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena