Interprovincial derbies offer a bespoke benchmarking environment when it comes to players jostling for places and position in the Ireland squad.
Friday night’s game in the Kingspan Stadium is the latest iteration of the process and an important one as Ireland head coach Andy Farrell weighs his options in advance of confirming a 42-man squad for the five-match tour to New Zealand the week after next.
It is the start of a rugby journey that will culminate in the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. While Ireland have confirmed 13 matches – five in New Zealand, three in November and five in next year’s Six Nations – plus either three or four warm-up matches in the summer of 2023, for those that don’t make the upcoming tour, it will feel like they are starting from the back of the grid, to mix sporting metaphors.
No player will want to offer a jump start to their rivals, so that adds extra spice to the s United Rugby Championship (URC) game in Belfast. Publicly the players would run a mile from any discussion that deviates from team considerations but privately they are well aware of the value of a high-profile contribution.
There are some mouthwatering duels in prospect. Mike Haley would have been a strong contender for Munster’s player of the season if Jack O’Donoghue was not a runaway favourite to land that honour, but the Munster fullback will lament the fact that Michael Lowry is an injury absentee. For those coming from distance they need to eclipse those further up the pecking order.
Keith Earls signed a contract this week that will take him up to the end of the Rugby World Cup, a state of affairs that would have had Farrell’s approval. He squares off tonight against a young pretender in Robert Baloucoune, whom many would like to see the 24-year-old add further to a brace of caps including a try-scoring debut against the USA last summer.
Ethan McIlroy (21) is a talented young prospect, who in Andrew Conway, faces a player who has generally excelled for Ireland. The probability that the uncapped Jimmy O’Brien will travel to New Zealand means there is one less plane ticket for back three players.
Ulster’s standout player this season James Hume and Chris Farrell (Munster) will go head-to-head at outside centre hoping to outshine a rival while the 29-year-old Stuart McCloskey – he scored tries in each of the last two of his six Ireland caps – wants to convince Andy Farrell that there is a role for him in the punishing physical climate in New Zealand.
Munster’s Conor Murray and Joey Carbery are currently Ireland’s back-up halfbacks, a role that UIster duo Billy Burns, and John Cooney have filled independently on occasion in the past. One game will not change that pecking order but there is an obvious incentive to prove a point, however moot.
It was interesting that when asked during the week about young Ulster players that could force their way on to the New Zealand tour, Iain Henderson singled out McElroy and replacement scrumhalf Nathan Doak. “They are players who I could easily see featuring,” he said.
Josh Wycherley, who won an Under-20s Six Nations Grand Slam (2019) is producing ever more mature performances in the absence of Dave Kilcoyne that offer set piece solidity to complement his work-rate and athleticism around the pitch. He is up against Tom O’Toole, another whose industry, tackling and ball playing are in an upper quality bracket, but he has got to prove that he can lock a scrum.
Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan lead the way when it comes to the national depth chart at hooker but Rob Herring and Niall Scannell – Connacht’s Dave Heffernan also gets a mention in any debate – get a chance to hop off each other; the Ulster hooker is currently higher up the ladder.
He too was asked about teammates that he felt could force their way into Farrell’s plans and responded: “I think [loosehead prop] Andy Warwick is having one of the seasons of his career. The improvements he has had over the last few years; he is playing brilliant rugby at the moment.
“Another guy who stands out is big Al [O’Connor]. He’s one of the big drivers in our forward pack. The work he does off the pitch that helps us on the pitch has been immense. Marcus Rea is having a great season, almost top of the turnovers.”
Munster appreciate Jean Kleyn’s value as do those who closely scrutinise his contribution this season while Fineen Wycherley’s versatility would make him an attractive tourist for Farrell. Thomas Ahern, who starts on the bench, brings a largely unique set of skills in an Irish rugby context that might benefit from a trip to New Zealand.
Backrow is a ridiculously competitive area in the national squad. Connacht’s Cian Prendergast has had a stellar season while Alex Kendellen is enjoying a very impressive final couple of months to his body of work. Nick Timoney’s consistent excellence for Ulster deservedly earned him Ireland recognition. It will be instructive to watch the battle of the number sevens.
Gavin Coombes’s return from an ankle injury is timely, albeit that he’d dearly love to extend the league season by a couple of matches to regain peak fitness. Rugby doesn’t always lend itself well to linear comparisons in a match situation but there’s little doubt that Andy Farrell should be able to clarify one or two selection issues after tonight’s 80 minutes.