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FEATURE Ireland's old guard nearing end... but key trio still needed

Ireland's old guard nearing end... but key trio still needed
2 months ago

“I idolize him. I’m so fortunate to play with him.” – Ryan Baird on Peter O’Mahony

It was around 90 minutes after Ireland had lifted the Six Nations trophy and most of the victorious squad were back celebrating in the home changing room. A few were still satisfying the corporate sponsors while another couple were out on the pitch, soaking in the relative calmness after what had come before.

The media waiting around for more sound-bites, natters and revelations were served up a couple of players that should prove mainstays for the next decade, Joe McCarthy (aged 22) and Ryan Baird (24). McCarthy expressed his desire for “legend” Peter O’Mahony to stay on as captain for a while longer. Baird, the man that could well take his jersey for Ireland’s next Test, against South Africa at Loftus Versveld, paid a wonderful tribute.

“He epitomises what it is to be an Irish rugby player. I said to him, before the game, how much I look up to him. I said it to him after, too.”

Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony
Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony have both won five Six Nations titles with Ireland, but may be nearing the end of their Test careers (Photo Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

There were seeds, going back to after the World Cup quarter-final exit to New Zealand, that O’Mahony would not being doing a Rory Best or a Johnny Sexton. We would not be seeing him hauling around Australia, in 2027, at the age of 38. He spoke of his many friends that had left Test rugby ahead of him and how he needed time to make a call on his next move. He opted to play on, but when talk emerged of no contract being signed and sealed for next season, this year’s Six Nations started taking on a ‘Last Dance’ feel.

At Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, back in February, he welled with pride after Ireland, with contributions from a few fresher faces, went out and bounced France 38-17. He could hang it all up, there and then, he admitted, after seeing what his younger team-mates could do; the levels this side had ascended to. Caelan Doris finished the final 25 minutes of that match as captain after O’Mahony was sin-binned, then replaced. It was a nod to Andy Farrell’s next move and, sure enough, 25-year-old Doris was captain for the next game, against Italy.

It is not as though it will all be smooth sailing, losing a captain, mongrel and lineout leader like O’Mahony. Then again, Ireland have absorbed some big personnel changes without missing a solid beat.

Doris ended up leading Ireland for over three hours in this year’s Six Nations. It has almost been a job-share, albeit just about shaded by O’Mahony. The transition has been so seamless that if news breaks, soon, that O’Mahony has played his last Test match and Doris is the new, permanent captain, it will barely raise a murmur.

It is not as though it will all be smooth sailing, losing a captain, mongrel and lineout leader like O’Mahony. Then again, Ireland have absorbed some big personnel changes without missing a solid beat. McCarthy replaced James Ryan, Calvin Nash stepped in for Mack Hansen and Jack Crowley filled a 10 jersey Sexton held for well over a decade. Next man up. The players stepping in have been a credit to themselves, and those readying them for it. To replace O’Mahony at blindside, there are four ready-made options – Baird, Tom Ahern or Cian Prendergast slotting in, or moving Doris over and bringing in Jack Conan at No.8.

Caelan Doris
Ireland’s future is in good hands with Jack Crowley settling in at No.10 and Caelan Doris set to take over as captain (Photo Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

What of the others in that Ireland squad that are pushing on? In the group that assembled for those final Six Nations games, against England and Scotland, nine of them will be over 35 by the time the next World Cup commences. Back in January, Andy Farrell dismissed the notion of four-year cycles, and building for World Cups. He is well aware of that age profile, though. The next two seasons, after the summer tour to South Africa, will be about looking at new faces and staying alert to possibilities that brought Hansen in, and Oli Jager home.

Conor Murray and Cian Healy are the players being monitored closely, by most of us. Farrell has got their unconditional buy-in for the roles they have mainly held for the past two years – occasional starts, many finishes. “As long as you are fit and able to contribute at this international level, then you want to be involved,” said Murray, midway through the campaign. “As long as they have you here, I will happily stay.”

There has been a two-year push, in some quarters, to have Craig Casey backing up Jamison Gibson-Park, who turned 32 in February. Farrell prefers the game management of Murray, at present.

The closest to a Murray in Ireland, right now, is Nathan Doak, but he has not kicked on as he, and others, may have hoped. The Ulsterman is only 22, though, and will relish Richie Murphy arriving as interim coach

He rallied to the 34-year-old’s defence after some questioned Ireland’s late decision to kick possession away in the loss to England at Twickenham. It shows that bite Murray still has that he whipped around to the crowd, after James Lowe booted the ball out to signal Ireland’s win over Scotland, and started gesturing to an imaginary watch on his wrist. He still has something to prove and Casey has not done enough in camp to shift him, yet. Cáolin Blade has sufficient pep to get included in some training squads, then Leinster have some decent prospects.

The closest to a Murray in Ireland, right now, is Nathan Doak, but he has not kicked on as he, and others, may have hoped. The Ulsterman is only 22, though, and will relish Richie Murphy arriving as interim coach for the rest of the season.

“Come the end of my career I’ll count medals, not caps,” observed Healy (36), when asked how he took to being back-up to Andrew Porter. Indeed, if Porter keeps logging these 70-plus minute performances to high levels, Healy could well stretch another year or two out of his ‘closer’ role.

Cian Healy
Only Brian O’Driscoll has played more times for Ireland than Cian Healy, who won his 129th cap against Scotland (Photo Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Of all the positions in Irish rugby that look shallow, it is loosehead. Porter, of course, was all set to dice it out with Furlong for the No.3 jersey until Leinster and the IRFU got the loosehead-turned-tighthead to switch back to the loose again.

Finlay Bealham has experience packing down on either side of the scrum but the best hope of competition for Porter comes from Munster and Leinster. Josh Wycherley was on a good trajectory, two years back, but Graham Rowntree has only started him nine times in his last 31 outings. Jeremy Loughman is the steadier bet, without blowing any of his rivals out of the water. Leinster’s potentials are greener, still. Jack Boyle (21) is having a breakthrough season while Paddy McCarthy – younger brother to Joe – looked promising in the U20s set-up and has four senior outings this year.

When you step back and look at it all, Farrell could do with Healy sticking around for another international season, most of all.

We have seen the likes of Ryan, McCarthy, Henderson and Baird all slotting in and out. Beirne is the constant and he has been colossal for his country, particularly since Farrell took over from Joe Schmidt.

Elsewhere in the Irish set-up, Iain Henderson (32) is already looking vulnerable. Farrell and the coaching staff think highly of the guy but his diminished place in the squad was evident when he was put up for media duty, ahead of the Scotland game, without ever looking a likely bench option.

Bealham (32) is a year older than the guy he is backing up, Tadhg Furlong, so it will be interesting to see how Farrell goes with his tightheads in South Africa. Much was expected of Ulster’s Tom O’Toole (25) but he has gone backwards in the squad. Conan (31) is another that remains valuable but Ireland produces quality back-rows at a rate of knots.

There are two, then, that could almost slip unnoticed from the succession planning. Their form is so good, as has been for the past three years, that it is hard to imagine Ireland not depending on them any time soon. Tadhg Beirne was another of the squad to turn 32, earlier this year. He is relatively fresh, in Test terms, due to his stint at Scarlets and his Ireland debut only coming six years ago.

Tadgh Beirne
Tadhg Beirne scored two tries in the Six Nations to take his tally to 11 in 50 caps (Photo Clement Mahoudeau/AFP via Getty Images)

We have seen the likes of Ryan, McCarthy, Henderson and Baird all slotting in and out. Beirne is the constant and he has been colossal for his country, particularly since Farrell took over from Joe Schmidt. The only foreboding note, regarding Beirne, was his tired concession of a penalty, amid the Twickenham din, before Marcus Smith slotted his winning drop-goal. Was it age, fatigue or not hearing ‘RELEASE’ that led to Beirne giving Smith an easy out if his drop-goal missed? Perhaps it was a mix of all three, but it was the first time in a long time he looked human.

Someone who has not looked remotely human for about 18 months now is the squad’s fourth oldest player – Bundee Aki. The Connacht centre will turn 34 next month and would be 37 when the next World Cup kicks off. For Irish supporters, it does not bear thinking about that he would not be around for that ride.

For the past three seasons, Aki has been as much Ireland’s as Connacht’s – playing 25 times for Farrell, and 21 for his province. To squeeze more high-quality seasons out of him, that split will have to continue. Connacht may even have to see him less.

James Hume (25) and Jamie Osborne (22) are the next lads trying to wedge into a squad jammed with class centres. Still, two from Aki, Robbie Henshaw (30) and Garry Ringrose (29) looks the best plan up until the Lions summer, at least.

Comments

10 Comments
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finn 80 days ago

James Lowe is another that they need to find a replacement for.

31 isn’t ancient, but it is for a winger. I guess Hansen / Keenan / Nash / Baloucoune make a decent back three quartet, but Lowe is a power carrier and Irelands main kicking option. When he leaves it’ll place a greater burden on Aki's replacement to punch holes in the defence, and on Crowley to win the kicking duels.

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finn 80 days ago

“To replace O’Mahony at blindside, there are four ready-made options – Baird, Tom Ahern or Cian Prenderghast slotting in, or moving Doris over and bringing in Jack Conan at No.8.”

I’d have thought the best option would be Tadgh Beirne at 6, then Ryan & McCarthy at lock.

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Shaylen 80 days ago

Ireland have alot of youth coming through which is healthy and they are very competitive young players so i dont think they will lose their lustre at all. The new laws world rugby are looking to initiate will favour their style of rugby. Change will catch up with many, as will age but I think Ireland are well stocked and look primed to continue their good form

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