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FEATURE Why Ireland have the best back-row in world rugby

Why Ireland have the best back-row in world rugby
3 months ago

“That back-row is formidable. When I look at Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris, jeez, it’s probably the best back-row in rugby.” – Jamie Roberts.

One of the main reasons a global calendar can’t come soon enough is to settle some ‘best in the world’ debates. Whether it is the Six Nations, The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby or Champions Cup, recency bias frequently comes into play when these declarations are made.

It is only natural. It will happen again later this year, when South Africa and New Zealand are back in action. For now, it is the Six Nations getting us all hot, bothered and carried away.

Before Ireland’s recent win over Wales, Jamie Roberts made his back row claim which, initially, seemed punchy. It is a big call. Ireland know all too well any affirmations made so close to their World Cup quarter-final exit will ring hollow to many. Their focus is firmly on setting some Six Nations history – becoming the first side to complete back-to-back Grand Slams – and they will leave the talking to the rest of us.

Andy Farrell
Peter O’Mahony succeeded the great Johnny Sexton as Andy Farrell’s Ireland captain this year (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“Oh, that’s such a nice compliment,” Van der Flier responded, when told of that line from the Wales and British and Irish Lions legend. Asked which other back-rows in stood out to him, the Leinster star ticked off the usual suspects – New Zealand, South Africa and France.

“It’s also the way the team wants to play,” he noted. “Some teams have the perfect back-row for the way they want to play the game. Some can be confrontational. Some may be lighter or more agile. There’s a lot of good combinations out there. England, even for our next game, will be a really tough test.”

There is so much depth. Then you have a brilliant player like Nick Timoney, who hasn’t featured yet.

Ireland need no-one from the outside telling them they fell short at the World Cup. They have been living with that fact since the full-time whistle blew at Stade de France on 14th October. Everything they had been building from the summer of 2021 up to the tournament in France late last year was to become the first team in green to scythe into unchartered territory, beyond the quarter-final stage where no Irish side has ventured.

That Roberts claim may seem brazen enough but, the more you look into it, he is on to something. Ireland’s starting back-row has 2022’s World Rugby player of the year, the frontrunner for 2025 Lions captain and a legend of the game who had that honour back in 2017. O’Mahony, Van der Flier and Doris are the most consistent back-row trio of the past two years. In the current landscape, they have one genuine challenger for the crown.

Let us first address the obvious go-to when any Springbok-less proclamations are made so close to their World Cup triumph. South Africa started with Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen in each of the knockout games. Vermeulen has now retired and is part of the Springbok coaching ticket, thus removing that lethal trident from the board. The combination started six times together in the past two years, one fewer than Kolisi, Du Toit and Leicester Tigers’ Jasper Wiese. Interestingly, the other Bok unit which earned the most minutes together was Kolisi, Franco Mostert and Wiese (four starts, four wins).

Siya Kolisi
Ireland edged Siya Kolisi’s South Africa in the Rugby World Cup pool phase, but the Springboks went on to claim the title while Ireland exited in the quarter-finals (Photo Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

O’Mahony, Van der Flier and Doris top the charts for back-row starts together since 2022 with 16. Next up are Italy’s Lorenzo Cannone, Michele Lamaro and Sebastian Negri, tied on 10 starts with Argentina three Juan Martin Gonzalez, Marcos Kremer and Pablo Matera. Behind them is New Zealand’s primary unit – Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea (8) -then France’s Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt (7).

According to Opta, only two back-row combinations started more than five victories over the past two years. Frizell, Cane and Savea won six of their eight together. The other member of that exclusive club is the Ireland trio – winning 14 of the 16 they started. When Andy Farrell changed that up slightly, swapping Jack Conan for O’Mahony and shifting Doris to blindside, Ireland won three out of four Tests.

Ireland fare best in the balance of their back-row and ticking most of the numerical boxes.

Digging into those numbers, and looking at some of the stand-out back-rows from the past two years, you get a real appreciation for what Savea and Doris – respective number eights for their country – bring to the party. The All Black captain and reigning World Rugby player of the year leads the way in six of 13 key areas for a Test back-row:

  • Tries scored: 9
  • Try assists: 9
  • Carries: 267
  • Metres gained: 937
  • Offloads: 31
  • Defenders beaten: 71

Doris tops the charts for turnovers won (25) and defensive ruck arrivals (273). Since 2022, the Leinster forward, who captained Ireland for the first time in their recent win over Italy, has four tries, three assists, 853 carries, 499 attacking ruck arrivals and has won 33 lineout balls. Alldritt and Ollivon – a lineout menace – score highly in many of those metrics, with Gonzalez (most line breaks, joint-second-most tries) also cropping up a fair bit. The South African back-row who appears most in those tables is Kwagga Smith, very much an impact sub for the Boks. Frizell and Cane make fleeting statistical appearances, reflecting New Zealand’s less than imperious form heading into the World Cup. Like South Africa, they were decent but had not quite clicked.

Ireland fare best in the balance of their back-row and ticking most of the numerical boxes. O’Mahony is vital at lineouts, defensive and attacking. Van der Flier is not only huge at the breakdown but gobbles up metres, line breaks and tries. Savea is almost an outlier in what he provides for New Zealand but the most complete unit, after Ireland, are Jelonch, Ollivon and Alldritt. It is hardly a surprise France, already without Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, have struggled in the Six Nations after losing Jelonch before the tournament and Alldritt during it.

Statistics only tell part of the story. Many who argue for a Springbok or All Blacks back r-ow would point to those sides making the World Cup final. The Ireland combination of O’Mahony, van der Flier and Doris did get one over the Boks, in the group stage, but New Zealand’s loose forwards bested them in the quarter-final. When the ABs went up against Kolisi, Du Toit and Vermeulen, Cane was red-carded and South Africa won the day. Savea raged against the dying of the light, but Du Toit was also superb.

Caelan Doris and Ardie Savea went head to head in a thrilling World Cup quarter-final in Paris (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

The wrinkle when assessing back-rows in this age of 6:2 and 5:3 bench splits are the replacements. Ireland are now leaning into having two back-rows on their bench, with Ryan Baird and Conan (a Lion in 2021) in reserve. The Boks had Wiese and Smith for the World Cup final, with the versatile, domineering RG Snyman there for company. The All Blacks opted for just Dalton Papali’i, but can also call on Ethan Blackadder and Luke Jacobson.

“One thing for us,” said Van der Flier, “has been that competition in the back-rows, across the provinces and, obviously, internationally. You look at the last game (against Italy) and Jack Conan was brilliant – he hadn’t had a huge amount of game time before the championship. Ryan Baird has been very good. There is so much depth. Then you have a brilliant player like Nick Timoney, who hasn’t featured yet. That competition really drives us on.”

To my mind, Ireland’s back-row hold a razor-thin edge over the All Blacks down to their sheer consistency and number of wins – including the 2022 Test series in New Zealand – and the quality of players backing them up. How long they hold on to that title will depend on how they fare on this summer’s tour to South Africa. It will be fascinating to see who Farrell and Rassie Erasmus pit against each other.

After that, we roll into The Rugby Championship where another decent performance or two will get everyone in a tizzy, making big calls again.


Rugby 99 days ago

yes ok
1 Ireland
2 bokke
3 France
4 Australia
5 England
6 Argentina

Jon 99 days ago

PSDT, Duane and Siya are better. Hell, PSDT, Kwagga and a stick of gum might be better

karin 99 days ago


Bull Shark 100 days ago

Dear Rassie,

If you’re reading this (you’re the best btw) please can you, Tony and Jerry do everything you can to wipe the floor with Ireland in July?


Please put 15 points or more on them. Please smash them and make sure that there is no way that we will have to listen to any more childish excuses. Don’t let it be close enough that the game is decided by a knock on try or some sh1t.

Please start one game with 9 forwards on the park (Kwagga at center) with a 8-0 split. Just so we can hear someone poo their pants in Ireland.

We will be filling out Loftus. It will take Ireland 2 hours by bus to get into the stadium. We will raise the roof.

Please pop this Ireland balloon. Permanently.

Your number one fan,

Bull Shark van der Merwe.

Vincent 100 days ago

😂Primary back row choice is somewhat meaningless in a game in which depth has proved to be what counts.

Turlough 100 days ago

“Ireland need no-one from the outside telling them they fell short at the World Cup”.

Technically correct but the sentiment is BS. Ireland played scintillating winning rugby at the world cup and died with their boots on against NZ. Ireland were involved in two of the highest quality three games in the tournament (Fra-SA being the third). How exactly did we fall short?

The world cup draw and scheduling is a joke making luck (and corruption?) the dominant factor in who won the knock out matches.

Just to illustrate. Swap Ireland’s pool schedule with SAs and you will likely have an all NH final and people wrongly BS-ing that NH has taken over.

Can World Rugby sort the corrupt scheduling of pool matches out. The Draw has been brought to within a year because it at last affected the big beasts (slow handclap after 24 years!). Can be sort out the dodgy scheduling now? (hint, it would take 5 mins)

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