Connacht's Gavin Thornbury has attributes to join Ireland ranks
The secondrow tackled more than any player in Champions Cup against Toulouse
Connacht’s Gavin Thornbury wins the lineout ahead of Rory Arnold during their defeat to Toulouse at the Sportsground. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Gavin Thornbury made 26 tackles in Connacht’s 21-7 Heineken Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse in the Sportsground, an impressive tally for a secondrow, but made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has only just returned following an injury layoff dating back to October.
The 26-year-old’s first match back was a Pro14 game against Leinster in the RDS on January 3rd, where he managed 52 minutes – he had only played four times this season prior to the game – in a contest in which Connacht were coursed from pillar to post.
His tackle count against Toulouse was the highest of any player across the 10 matches in the tournament last weekend. Thornbury was previously name-checked by former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt on a couple of occasions as a player of potential but periodic injury issues have denied the 6ft 8in secondrow a consistent opportunity to try to earn a place in the national squad.
His age profile, talent and athleticism along with his form for Connacht should make him a viable contender for the national squad in future if he can stay fit.
The former Leinster academy player’s development was aided by a stint playing club rugby in New Zealand and at home with UCD before getting a chance with Connacht.
Despite his limited game time this season he is tied at the top for the most lineouts stolen in the Guinness Pro14, an area of the game in which he is very strong as is his speed and mobility around the pitch, reminiscent of a backrow forward. There are aspects of his carrying and footwork that require fine tuning but he possesses many of the qualities required for international rugby and is perhaps an injury or two away from that opportunity.
Munster and Ireland number eight CJ Stander leads the way in two categories
If Thornbury was a standout performer from an Irish perspective in Europe last weekend, statistically speaking, there a number of others who have excelled with the final round of pool matches in the Champions Cup to come at the weekend.
Munster and Ireland number eight CJ Stander leads the way in two categories. He has carried more ball (96) than anyone else and also made the most tackles, 81 across five matches. His selflessness on behalf of the team, commitment and work rate are voracious and unquestioned but there are aspects of his game, footwork and passing in or before contact, that need improvement.
His Test future under the new Ireland coach Andy Farrell may lie at blindside flanker, where he played some of his best rugby in a green jersey, when Jamie Heaslip was number eight. The way that Farrell sets up his backrow for the opening game of the Six Nations against Scotland next month will offer a window into how he wants the national side to play.
Ulster boast three of the top 10 carriers with their outstanding Springbok Marcell Coetzee – he was brilliant in the defeat to Clermont Auvergne and there are few if any better number eights in world rugby – followed by centre Stuart McCloskey and Iain Henderson in eighth. Munster fullback Mike Haley (60) has underlined his value as an attacking threat in the campaign.
Several players feature across a number of categories. Ulster captain Henderson is tied sixth in “turnovers” with five, the same number as Josh van der Flier – Connacht’s Bundee Aki (six) is the leading Irish player – while the Leinster flanker is ranked second in tackles (80). James Ryan (66) also makes the top 10 for tackles, despite missing the win over Lyon at the RDS through injury.
From an attacking perspective, Leinster duo Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour feature prominently with 10 clean breaks apiece, one behind team-mate James Lowe (11). In terms of “defenders beaten” Larmour (24) and Ringrose (22) provide an obvious cutting edge with their footwork and pace while Coetzee (20) generally takes a more direct route in scattering opposing defences.
From a team perspective, Leinster have kicked the second fewest penalty goals (three) but scored the most tries (26), figures that are informed by how dominant they have been in four of their five games. Munster, have been embroiled in much tighter matches, and therefore kicked more penalties (13) than any other team, scoring the second fewest tries (eight).
Connacht are pacesetters in lineouts won (75) across all teams while Leinster (30) are the leading Irish province in terms of offloads; although some way behind Toulouse (65) and Racing 92 (56). Farrell’s Ireland squad announcement crystallises the position for players from an individual perspective but the weekend’s European matches allows a platform to challenge that pecking order.