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FEATURE Massive Andy Farrell decision asks three Ireland stars to put their legacies on the line

Massive Andy Farrell decision asks three Ireland stars to put their legacies on the line
2 weeks ago

Back in March, after a resounding win over Wales and some fulsome Jamie Roberts praise, I dug into the statistics, match tapes and three years’ worth of evidence. The Welshman had described Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris as ‘the best back row in rugby’. My conclusion was to agree with Roberts – Ireland had the most rounded back row unit over a stretch of years.

France (Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt) were also in the conversation, as were two South African units – Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit were the constants, with Duane Vermeulen and Jasper Wiese swapping in at number eight. My hat was hung, though, and the call was made. Data, the eye test, big game results and how rounded Andy Farrell’s back-row was offered a hefty stack of corroboration for the Irish argument. There was, to put it lightly, a considerable response in the comments section. A deluge of opinions and counter-proposals.

Peter O'MahonyIreland skipper Peter O’Mahony was frequently replaced early in the second half of Munster’s late-season matches (Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Four months on, O’Mahony, Van der Flier and Doris have all seemed fallible – once on Test duty and at other times with their provinces. The first reality check arrived at Twickenham, courtesy of England. Ollie Chessum and Sam Underhill were ferocious that day, while Ben Earl backed up his talk of wanting to be considered one of the world’s best. Van der Flier was withdrawn after 60 minutes, despite being the only starting Ireland back-row to play close to his potential.

O’Mahony was practically given his farewell at the end of the Six Nations, and admitted captaining his country to another title may have proved a fitting swansong. He went home, consulted his family and thrashed it out with Farrell, and is back to lead his nation again. In the final two months of the season, he was called ashore before 55 minutes had elapsed on five occasions – no longer backed to go for the full 80. When Graham Rowntree reversed that trend against Glasgow in the URC semi-final, both O’Mahony and Munster ran out of steam in the second half.

Leinster faltered in their run-in, too, adding credence to the narrative they cannot get over the line when it truly counts. Doris has enjoyed so many highs, this season, from sensational match performances to captaining Ireland for the first time. If he is to be judged against the very best, though, he must carry two high-profile errors – the knock-on against New Zealand during the World Cup, and conceding a costly penalty which put Toulouse out of sight in the Champions Cup final. Against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, he was the second best eight on show, as Cameron Hanekom ran amok. Ireland will be pleased Hanekom is among the injured South African stars missing out on the fun.

This series provides an opportunity – as the world’s top ranked sides face off – to settle the world’s best back-row debate

Then we have Van der Flier. If many forwards have benefitted from the growing 6:2 bench split, it has hindered the 2022 World Rugby player of the year. Jacques Nienaber arrived at Leinster with that tactic firmly in mind to help them close out knockout games. Seeking to keep some high-class options in reserve, Van der Flier started on the bench in two big games against La Rochelle, and the final against Toulouse.

He is not the sort to rock the boat, but that diminished role in some crucial matches leaves him needing a solid tour to prove some doubters wrong. The Wicklow native missed out on Lions selection in 2017 and, bizarrely, in 2021. He could do his case for Australia 2025 wonders by reasserting himself, but tests do not come tougher than this.

This series provides an opportunity – as the world’s top ranked sides face off – to settle the world’s best back-row debate (until the November window, at least). We know who Ireland are lining up, with Ryan Baird and possibly Nick Timoney in reserve. South Africa are going with a trio many Bok fans have long called for. Kolisi and Du Toit are in situ while Kwagga Smith, the World Cup supersub, who inherits the eight jersey from one of his new coaches, Vermeulen. Smith is now 31, with only 17 of his 41 Test appearances coming as a starter. The last time he started consecutive Test matches was on the blindside flank back in November 2021. If anyone has earned the right to get a starting run, though, it is a guy who became the very definition of ‘bench impact’ in France last October.

Peter O'Mahony and <a href=
Conor Murray have both won five Six Nations titles with Ireland, but how much longer will they remain involved?” width=”1024″ height=”683″ /> Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony have won five Six Nations titles together (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The absence of Jamison Gibson-Park from Ireland’s touring squad, and the island-wide palpitations that caused, shows how fretful many are at the prospect of this Springbok showdown.

After the World Cup Gibson-Park grasped the baton from Johnny Sexton and became backline leader with Leinster and Ireland. “That’s something that has happened naturally,” he explained, back in April. “It was a conscious decision. I’m the oldest [Leinster] back now, which is pretty depressing!”

The 32-year-old’s excellent decision-making and attacking instincts took a lot of the pressure off Jack Crowley in his first sustained run in the Irish 10 jersey. Who Farrell choses to start alongside the young Munster talent will be fascinating.

Casey and Crowley have only played 158 minutes of international rugby together (72 of those coming when they both started this year’s Six Nations win over Italy)

Rassie Erasmus played selector last weekend and predicted the Ireland coach would pair Crowley with clubmate Craig Casey. The past season would suggest Conor Murray is next in line to start. The 35-year-old was preferred to Casey as Gibson-Park’s back-up for most of the World Cup and Six Nations. Casey and Crowley have only played 158 minutes of international rugby together (72 of those coming when they both started this year’s Six Nations win over Italy).

When it comes to games on South African soil, where Crowley proved his mettle as a tourist with Munster, all four have come in starting tandem with Murray. The call Farrell must make is whether to see if Casey and Crowley can handle the Springbok press – Du Toit and Damien de Allende leading the hunt – or trust Murray to be that steadying presence. “Keep going until the phone calls don’t come,” was how Murray put his longevity, days before he flew out with the squad. He is one of three remaining players in the Ireland set-up who featured on the 2016 tour here, historically winning the first Test before being edged out in the final two. Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong are the other two.

Murray has long been lauded for his box kicking and effective game management, with his speed of distribution and attacking thrusts highlighted as waning. Before the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour, Murray had a moment of private reflection in the Ireland team hotel which steeled him. Each Lions year, during the Six Nations, a large selection of players from the ‘home’ nations are asked to try on the kit and pose for head shots, in case they make the final selection. As cherry dangles go, it is a lush one.

Six Nations Craig Casey
Craig Casey is vying for the number nine jersey vacated by the injured Jamison Gibson-Park (Photo by PA)

“Because of Covid,” Murray recalled, “you got the jersey sent to your room and you had to put it on there before you went down to this room, to get the shots taken. I put it on and had a weird moment, looking in the mirror and looking down at the jersey, thinking, ‘Jeez, this would be really cool to wear the jersey again and have a good crack off it’.”

Murray was back to his best form, as that season ended – a sniping, try-scoring threat. That run earned him Lions selection, and become captain for a large part of the tour when Alun Wyn Jones popped his shoulder. Since that tour, he has started only seven of his past 27 Test appearances, with Gibson-Park seizing control. Caolin Blade is the third scrum-half in the squad, and coming off a fine season with Connacht, but Murray will likely win his 125th and 126th caps. It is just a matter of how Farrell wants to take it to the Boks.


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Rian 17 days ago

Murray isn't starting because in the six nations he gave England the ball which allowed smith to score a drop goal winning the game for England. It was a terrible decision and Casey deserves the start.

Turlough 19 days ago

Not sure what Ryan Baird has to do to get the start for Ireland.

Bull Shark 19 days ago

With some of the players having a peak at long-term Bok ambitions in the back three (Roos, Phepsi, Hanekom, Louw etc etc) for the boks, the Boks might not have the best three in the world - but they certainly have the most consistently excellent back three who can slot in seamlessly. Exciting stuff.

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