The search for Rob Kearney’s successor as Ireland fullback remains one of the key problems for Andy Farrell to solve. The position is under extreme scrutiny given it was Farrell himself that made his desire for change crystal clear by not including Kearney in his first squad get-together last Christmas, a decision which effectively retired the player from Test rugby.
Kearney held the fullback position for over a decade, making his Test debut in 2007 and ultimately winning 95 caps for Ireland.
Filling his boots was never going to be easy, but Farrell has quickly discovered that the list of potential heirs to the throne is not as rich as it once appeared.
In his early days at Leinster it was felt Joey Carbery was a better operator at fullback than out-half, but his own determination to become Ireland’s premier 10, mixed with a cruel run of injury setbacks, means any suggestion of Carbery as Ireland’s fullback is at the very least on hold for the foreseeable future. Simon Zebo remains out of the international loop since swapping Munster for Paris, while Andrew Conway is thriving since being almost exclusively used on the wing by Munster.
So where does Farrell look to next?
On Saturday Jacob Stockdale’s name was thrown back into the hat thanks to an effective performance as Ulster were beaten 28-10 by Leinster.
Stockdale has been used primarily as a winger for both Ulster and Ireland to date, but has increasingly found himself operating in the fullback slot for the province this season, with promising results.
The player himself recently admitted he enjoys the position as he tends to see more of the ball – he led the way with 85 metres made against Leinster – but that won’t be enough for Farrell to relocate him.
With all 28 of his Ireland starts coming on the wing, he is totally unproven on the Test stage as a fullback.
It is worth remembering Farrell is not the first coach to try find a successor to Kearney. In the 2019 Six Nations Joe Schmidt handed Robbie Henshaw a surprise start at fullback only for the Leinster man to endure a difficult evening against an England side that were more than happy to target him. The experiment was not revisited.
Farrell will be wary of a repeat if he does opt to try a new face at fullback.
The argument boils down to what Stockdale offers which Larmour does not.
The most obvious advantage Stockdale holds is his extra bit of height. At 6’1″, Kearney was well able to make his presence felt in the air, making it one of his key strengths. Larmour checks in at 5’10” while Stockdale stands at 6’3″. The high ball remains a problem area for Larmour, and no matter how much he works on his aerial game he can’t add any inches to his frame.
Stockdale is by no means the finished article when it comes to being competitive in the air, but he certainly offers a ready-made frame for Farrell to work with.
The Ulster flyer also brings pace – although Larmour can hardly be accused of dragging his heels – power, and a valuable kicking option, as demonstrated in the defeat to Leinster on Saturday.
Match report ?? https://t.co/q0qkUjh4uw
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 29, 2020
So what about the case for Larmour?
For a start, it appears Leinster coaches Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have come to the decision that fullback is the 23-year-old’s best position, and he has looked increasingly comfortable at Test level too.
Of his eight starts in all competitions for Leinster this season, seven have come with the 15 on his back. Compare that to last season, where he started eight from 17 games on the wing. Stockdale, on the other hand, has started six games on the wing and just four at fullback across the current campaign. Last season only one of his 11 starts was in the 15 shirt, although he looked remarkably comfortable as the last line of defence against both Connacht and Leinster. Stockdale did regularly play the position at U20 level, but the player himself acknowledges senior rugby is a different ball game. At 24, he has plenty time to learn.
Do you agree? ? pic.twitter.com/L5vBBdK0HF
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) December 31, 2019
Not only does Larmour have more experience in the position, there is perhaps no player in Ireland who is as exciting with ball in hand. Against Munster two weeks ago he made nine runs for 46 metres, beating five defenders, and his dazzling footwork allows him to find a way out of the tightest holes.
Other players could influence Farrell’s thinking too, and Larmour could fall victim to his own versatility. Leinster’s James Lowe becomes eligible to play for Ireland later this year, and prefers the left-wing spot currently occupied by Stockdale in Farrell’s team.
James Ryan was ruled out for 10-12 weeks just four weeks ago.
Dan Leavy hasn't played in well over a year.
Both could be back in action this weekend. ?https://t.co/1e0h5RlF1Q
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 31, 2020
Would Farrell push Stockdale back to 15 to accommodate Lowe on the wing? It certainly seems an attractive possibility, particularly given the versatility and quality Larmour could offer from the bench in covering both positions.
It is also worth noting that after a blistering start to his Ireland career Stockdale’s hit-rate has taken a rapid nosedive. In 2018 he memorably scored seven tries in his first Six Nations campaign – a new record – and was being touted as a potential future all-time Ireland try-scorer. Since then he has dotted down five tries in 19 appearances.
Perhaps the time is now right for Stockdale to relocate.
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