Joe Schmidt has selection dilemma as talent queues up for openside slot
Josh van der Flier and Sean Reidy have been the form players at start of Pro12 season
Sean Reidy in action during Ireland’s second Test against South Africa in Johannesburg in June. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Jordi Murphy wore the number seven jersey in two of three Tests on Ireland’s summer tour to South Africa, Rhys Ruddock did so in the second Test, while Sean Reidy won his first cap off the bench in that match.
So who will wear it when Joe Schmidt’s Ireland travel to Chicago to take on New Zealand in November, the first of four matches for the national side?
The most direct form-line is to examine how the provinces have set up through the opening stanzas of the Guinness Pro12.
So let’s focus on the impact of those who have worn the number seven jersey for their provinces so far this season.
Specifically, that’s Leinster’s Josh van der Flier, who has started at seven in three of his province’s four matches in the tournament, and his positional sibling Reidy, who has played all bar seven minutes in Ulster’s unbeaten start.
Connacht’s injury issues have seen them start three different players in as many games – not including the abandoned fixture against Zebre – in Nepia Fox Matamua, James Connolly and Jake Heenan.
Van der Flier missed Ireland’s summer tour through injury but has begun the provincial season impressively; three tries in three starts at openside flanker is an eye-catching embellishment to some decent numbers across the categories listed in the graphic below.
There’s an argument that those statistics might have been even more compelling if he didn’t have the share the backrow with exceptionally athletic team-mates, two of whom are equally adept in the seven jersey.
Dan Leavy played number eight (Treviso – 15 carries, 11 tackles, two offloads), blindside (Glasgow – 12 carries, nine tackles, two turnovers, three defenders beaten) and openside (Edinburgh – two tries, two turnovers) and leads the team with five turnovers.
Murphy lined out at number eight (Glasgow, 11 carries, two breaks, 38 metres made) and twice at blindside flanker (Edinburgh, Ospreys); his numbers in Scotland were excellent too.
Jamie Heaslip has played Leinster’s last two matches – his stats are superb – so for van der Flier to run up the figures he has given the calibre of those around him (Dominic Ryan too) underlines the quality of his contribution.
It’ll be interesting to note what Leinster coach Leo Cullen decides to do in terms of balancing his backrow through the next five matches – games against the unbeaten Cardiff Blues, Munster and Connacht in the Pro12, with Champions Cup ties against Castres Olympique and Montpellier.
This against a backdrop of giving Ryan, Ruddock and potentially a returning Seán O’Brien some game-time.
Reidy has contributed handsomely to Ulster’s unbeaten run and he, like van der Flier, is playing alongside in-form players.
One turnover might seem underwhelming but when his backrow buddy, Clive Ross, has snaffled a tournament leading seven, it’s less anaemic.
The former Lansdowne player has been superb in all facets of the game, forming a potent backrow alongside Reidy and Roger Wilson initially and then Robbie Diack against the Scarlets.
Ross’s absence from last weekend’s game against the Warriors saw Iain Henderson switch to the backrow and the change in balance – Wilson was back at eight – and the nature of the game saw Reidy produce some serious numbers: 10 carries over the gainline, 50 metres made and 20 tackles as he played a more orthodox role at seven.
The Connacht number seven jersey has been something of a poisoned chalice this season so far and coach Pat Lam will be hoping that Heenan can get an injury-free run alongside ever- present starters, Eoin McKeon and John Muldoon.
Munster’s Rassie Erasmus must wonder at the misfortune that has deprived him at various stages of O’Donnell, O’Donoghue and O’Callaghan, all in excellent form.
Erasmus will be grateful for CJ Stander’s contribution, that of Billy Holland (72 tackles, the most in the league) and Oliver’s try-scoring cameo.
By the time that Ireland head for the USA, Peter O’Mahony and O’Brien, amongst others, will hopefully be back playing.
Schmidt isn’t linear in this thinking but for the moment in the scrap for the number seven jersey, Josh is off to a flier.