Ireland’s backrow blitz: Joe Schmidt has a wealth of options
Who gets a spot on the plane to Japan for the World Cup next year is anyone’s guess
Max Deegan, Caelan Doris, Jordi Murphy and Josh van der Flier are just four of Ireland’s extensive backrow options. Photos: Inpho
Jordi Murphy’s name in the backrow of the Ulster starting team tonight marks the beginning of a season long dogfight across the provinces for the attentions of Irish coach Joe Schmidt.
Josh van der Flier, who has not played since February, this week announced his resumption of full training with Leinster and his re-entry to Ireland’s extravagant backrow pool.
The 25-year-old damaged his ACL during the Six Nations opener in Paris last February and has been out of action since.
Meanwhile Caelan Doris and Max Deegan were early runners in Leinster colours and are also hoping to make an impression.
Doris, like lock James Ryan, has seamlessly moved from the Irish under-20s to senior and last week Leo Cullen handed him his first start. The imposing number eight has already shown his ball carrying power, work rate, intelligence and athleticism.
The question he is asking himself is can he do a Ryan and seemlessly move from the under-20s to the bosom of Schmidt.
Some he will hope mature over the season to become contenders, others he hopes will stay fit and hold central roles. The one thing that needs no hope is his number of options.
At the 2015 World Cup, Schmidt took five flankers to England – Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, Seán O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Rhys Ruddock with Jamie Heaslip at number 8 and Iain Henderson ostensibly a lock but able to play flanker. Now 33-years-old and in his testimonial year with Ulster, Henry is out of the picture, while Heaslip has been forced to retire.
But since then the landscape has dramatically changed. Like Ulster’s Henderson, Leinster’s Ryan and Munster’s Tadhg Beirne, who is on the bench tonight in Glasgow hoping for his first outing since moving from Scarlets, have emerged. All are effective utility players in the secondrow and backrow.
With O’Brien, van der Flier, Doris, Ryan, Deegan, Dan Leavy, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, Josh Murphy, Will Connors, Mick Kearney and Australian Scott Fardy all mulling around the Leinster gym in UCD, the decision taken for Murphy to move has never seemed so logical.
At Munster, O’Mahony and Stander dominate the landscape and look rooted in their positions.
Beirne coming in may change the dynamic with Tommy O’Donnell, Conor Oliver and Jack O’Donoghue maybe lesser lights but not out of the picture.
Oliver signed a new two-year deal with Munster in February 2018, advancing from a development to full contract. But he has been ruled out for 14 weeks after dropping a weight on one of his toes during pre-season gym training for the 2018-19 season.
O’Donoghue was selected in the Irish squad for the 2017 Summer Tour against the United States and Japan. But knee surgery following injury in Munster’s Pro14 semi-final defeat to Leinster last May has pushed him back.
Even Ireland’s second and backrows for the Grand Slam match against England last March will come under pressure to perform.
Schmidt started with Ryan – surely the most successful breakout year in the history of Irish rugby – Henderson, O’Mahony, Leavy and Stander with Murphy on the bench. But both van der Flier and O’Brien were injured at the time.
Those are the group with Jack Conan who have held the shirt, or at least passed it around among themselves. But the younger players looking in also need to be taken seriously.
Doris, like Ryan, comes from the under-20s with a huge reputation and Schmidt did not hesitate with Ryan, who has smashed any notions that age is a barrier to being a first pick player.
In Ulster, Nick Timoney is being talked about and only this week said that he has put hopes of earning an international call-up to the back of his mind for now as he focuses on earning a regular place in the province’s starting 15.
He also has pace, which earned him a place on the Ireland 7s team for the 2017 Sevens Grand Prix Series and was part of the Ireland team that took first place in the 2017 Moscow Sevens.
Last week O’Brien was circumspect about his body. He’s been through the mill but is as fit as he has ever been. Even he is uncertain about the year ahead although Rob Kearney kindly framed him as “a caged animal” after a shoulder operation and months on the sideline. “I’m probably stronger in every asset,” said the Ireland and Lions flanker last week.
He’ll need it. They all will.