Gerry Thornley: Ireland's retirees will leave a sizeable gap
Heaslip, Bowe and Trimble among those to bow out after hugely successful careers
Tommy Bowe: Scored 30 tries in just 69 caps, he is currently second only to Brian O’Driscoll in Ireland’s list of all-time leading try scorers. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Whereas Australia retain only four players from their match-day squad when Ireland shook the 2011 World Cup with that memorable 15-6 win over the Wallabies at Eden Park, Joe Schmidt will most likely start six of the Irish 23 who were on duty that night.
Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin (a replacement that night) and Conor Murray, who made a significant impact off the bench, are all likely to start at the Suncorp Stadium on Saturday. Had Rory Best not been withdrawn on the eve of the tour with his hamstring strain, that figure would have been seven, with Cronin again on the bench.
However, scanning through the rest of the Irish team that night highlights the surprising toll of the 2017-18 season. Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble were all key starting men, and all have retired this season.
To these names can be added two others who have since emerged through the residency ruling and then were forced into premature retirement, namely Richardt Strauss and Jared Payne, as well as Isa Nacewa and John Muldoon.
What makes this bigger than normal list of high-profile retirements unusual is that it hasn’t happened at the end of a World Cup or Lions cycle, but rather in between.
So it’s come to pass that we’ve seen the last of arguably Leinster’s best player of the professional era, and certainly its best overseas’ signing; arguably Ireland’s outstanding right-winger of this or any other era; ditto Ireland’s number eight; Connacht’s greatest ever servant as well as some others who excelled for province and country.
Not all players, least of all the greats, enjoy the fairytale farewell. Brian O’Driscoll signed off with a Six Nations title in Paris and then a Pro12 Grand Final at the RDS. But he was the exception rather than the rule – witness the cases of Paul O’Connell, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara and many more besides.
For the 35-year-old Nacewa, he’s so good he’s done it twice, and having been serenaded at the RDS after completing a Pro12/Challenge Cup double, bade farewell a second time by kicking the match-winning penalties in the European Champions Cup in Bilbao and then captained Leinster in completing their first double with their win over the Scarlets in the Pro14 final at the Aviva Stadium.
He finished five caps shy of a century for Ireland, although reaches that figure when one includes his five Lions Tests
Of course such a wonderful all-round rugby player, model pro and all-round decent bloke deserved to leave with a fitting legacy, but who writes his scripts anyway?
Similarly, the 34-year-old Muldoon waved au revoir to a packed Sportsground with his family alongside him in the aftermath of a record win for his beloved Connacht over Leinster, after kicking the last conversion with the first of his record 327 appearances for his home province.
If you’ve gotta go?
Muldoon’s biggest misfortune was perhaps to have his career coincide with Heaslip, who was forced to retire at the same age without playing a game for over a year since pulling up in the warm-up against England last season.
He thus failed to complete his stated ambition of one last tilt at the World Cup as well as, apparently, playing one more game for Trinity. He finished five caps shy of a century for Ireland, although reaches that figure when one includes his five Lions Tests. That also shows it was a hell of an innings, in which he won a Grand Slam, two more Six Nations titles and the first three of those four Leinster stars.
While Heaslip was the first Irish international to be born in Israel, Bowe became the first man from Monaghan to play for Ireland in 80 years, and was also a key figure in that 2009 Grand Slam, with his signature catch-and-run try from O’Gara’s crosskick in the Cardiff finale.
It was one of 30 tries in just 69 caps, second only to yer man O’Driscoll in Ireland’s list of all-time leading try scorers, and he is the Pro14’s leading all-time try scorer and fourth in the European Cup. In total there were 250 first-class games and 131 tries for Ulster, the Ospreys, Ireland and the Lions.
Always an engaging, good-humoured and helpful fellow, the same has to be said of Trimble, who’s humour is as dry as a bone. Bowe’s strike rate may have frustrated him at times, yet one of the feathers in his cap is that he retired as Ulster’s record try scorer with 77. He was also a huge part of the 2013-14 Six Nations title, when injury-free and at his zenith. And how can we forever forget his trademark, express train surges out of the defensive line, whether for a ball and all tackle, or an intercept try.
Payne won a comparatively modest 20 Test caps and 78 games or Ulster. Forced to retire at 32, but for injuries he might have left an even more lasting legacy for Ulster and Ireland. Yet the manner in which Joe Schmidt, Sexton and others speak of him shows Payne’s organisational and communication skills were as profoundly influential as his range of skills. He always seemed to have time on the ball and always seemed to have a positive effect on his teams’ performances.
Indeed, it tells us plenty that he was part of a 72.5 per cent winning ratio in those 20 caps, with 14 wins, 1 draw and five defeats, including the wins which ended both the All Blacks 18-match winning run in Chicago and England’s of the same number in Dublin last year, as well as South Africa in Cape Town in between.
Strauss was another forced to leave the game prematurely, and aside from surprising team-mates and all those watching by learning the anthem for his debut against South Africa, ultimately played 154 times for Leinster over nine seasons and 17 times for Ireland.
They’ll be missed.