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Lock stocks: Ireland's 7-deep second row pecking order with James Ryan out

By Ciarán Kennedy
Tadhg Beirne, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson. (Getty)

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News that James Ryan will be out of action for up to three months will surely have sent a chill down Andy Farrell’s spine. Having undergone a procedure on a shoulder injury sustained in training a few weeks ago, the Leinster second row is set to miss the rest of Leinster’s season as rugby prepares to return in Europe.


It could also spell bad news for Ireland, who face a packed schedule later this year.

Leinster stated Ryan is set to miss 10-12 weeks. Ireland are due to play the first of their remaining Six Nations in a little under 12 weeks when they take on Italy (October 24), before playing France a week later.

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Jim picks his Lions XV
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Jim picks his Lions XV

Farrell’s squad will then continue their autumn schedule by taking part in a new eight-team tournament, designed to take the place of the original autumn calendar.

Even if Ryan recovers ahead of schedule, the games against Italy and France look a big ask after such a lengthy spell out. Bear in mind that by the time the fixture against the Azzurri arrives, Ryan probably won’t have played a competitive game of rugby for eight months.

His absence would represent a considerable loss. At 24, Ryan is already one of Ireland’s most important players and a guaranteed starter for Andy Farrell.

Should his leading second row option be out of the picture, it leaves Farrell facing some interesting selection issues in an Ireland team that has struggled to recapture the form that made them such a scintillating force in 2018.


Here, we look at the leading candidates vying for a place in the Ireland second row.

Devin Toner

This time last year it looked as though Toner’s Ireland career was drawing to close having being the big-name omission from Joe Schmidt’s squad for the Rugby World Cup.

IRFU introduce delayed payments ireland second row
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Despite this body blow, Toner responded in impeccable fashion and was back in the squad as Andy Farrell prepared to lead Ireland into the 2020 Six Nations. He is not the most flash player in the position, but Toner gets his work done diligently is much more than an easy lineout target, playing an important role in some of Ireland’s greatest days.

At 34, his time at Test level won’t last much longer, but based on his form over the past 12 months Toner remains a very live option.

Iain Henderson

The Ulster captain has 55 Ireland caps to his name but will feel that number should be higher. A member of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour, he has sometimes found it difficult to nail down a regular place in the Ireland team, with 24 of those Test caps coming off the bench.

A destructive ball-carrier, he has the ability to dominate more games. Has shown genuine leadership qualities, succeeding Rory Best as Ulster captain and acting as Ireland’s chief lineout caller in Japan. He wasn’t at his best at the World Cup, but certainly wasn’t alone in that. Henderson has all the requirements necessary to be a key part of Farrell’s plans going forward, but needs to deliver more consistently. At his best, he can be one of Ireland’s most important players.

Ultan Dillane

Enjoyed a hugely promising start to his Ireland career by making a real impact off the bench against England in 2016 – the same year he won the Pro12 with Connacht – but the momentum quickly fizzled out. Only three of Dillane’s 15 Ireland appearances have come as a member of the starting 15 (v Canada 2016, v Fiji 2017 & Italy 2019). He didn’t play a single minute for Ireland in a difficult 2018 – his mother passed away that February – but has made big strides and come back from that tragedy impressively.

ireland second row
Ultan Dillane on Barbarians duty

There are bigger and stronger candidates than Dillane on this list, but his workrate is superb and the 26-year-old was one of Connacht’s best performers before the season was disrupted, including some stand-out displays in Europe. Deserved his place on the bench during this year’s Six Nations and although he is still some way from challenging for first team selection, he could prove a valuable impact player going forward.

Tadhg Beirne

There was huge excitement when Beirne left Scarlets for Munster two years ago – he won an incredible 39 turnovers in the 2017/18 Pro14 season, 17 more than anyone else – yet he hasn’t made the desired impact for province or country. Injuries have played a big part in that, but with Ireland Beirne seems to be a victim of his own versatility.

Capable of playing in either the back row or second row (Munster almost exclusively use him as a lock), seven of Beirne’s 13 caps have come off the bench as he flits between the two positions. Another player whose season was disrupted with injury, Beirne has a way to go to convince Farrell he can be more than a utility player at Test level. The arrival of World Cup winner RG Snyman at Munster could be the start of an exciting new second-row partnership at the province, and may be just what Munster’s breakdown specialist needs to take his Test career to the next level.

Ryan Baird

There a number of outside bets for second row selection, with Connacht’s Gavin Thorbury, Ulster Kieran Treadwell and Munster Fineen Wycherley among them, but Leinster academy man Baird seems the hottest prospect.

Baird is still green behind the ears with only seven Leinster appearances under his belt, but that’s never been a barrier for Ireland selection. Remember that James Ryan, like a certain Brian O’Driscoll, was an Ireland international before he had even made his senior Leinster debut.

Baird is one of the most exciting young players in Ireland. Both powerful and athletic, his stunning hat-trick of tries against Glasgow Warriors in February showcased the blistering speed that marks him out in the position. Like Ronan Kelleher at hooker, Baird could offer some extra dynamism in an Ireland team that was often accused of looking stale last year.

He’s already been around the Ireland squad and would add an interesting element of the unknown should Farrell be temped to try him out alongside a more experienced head. The autumn window just might provide an opportune time to do so.

Quinn Roux

A player Joe Schmidt was clearly fond of, handing him a high-profile debut against South Africa in 2016. The Connacht man has added 11 further caps but the last of those came in the 2019 Six Nations.

Munster Connacht Quinn Roux
Quinn Roux

Like Toner, he responded to his omission from the World Cup with some excellent displays for Connacht and has grown into one of the province’s real leaders, but injury dashed his hopes of featuring in this year’s Six Nations. Recently underwent surgery on a hand injury so faces an uphill battle to play a part in the autumn window.

Jean Kleyn

One of the villains of Ireland’s World Cup campaign last year, through no fault of his own. Cited as “a specialist tight-head second row” by Joe Schmidt, Kleyn’s inclusion over the much-loved Toner was also going to leave him open to extra scrutiny. While he hardly lit it up in Japan – starting against Russia before being introduced off the bench against Samoa – he is by no means out of the picture under Farrell.

Rugby's international eligibility
Jean Kleyn has been an effective performer for Munster over the last three seasons. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

It is worth noting that he won’t turn 27 until later this month, meaning there is still plenty of time for him to develop his game. Missed the Six Nations through injury and you feel it would take another few bumps and bruises around the squad for Kleyn to leap-frog his way up the pecking order.


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