Every member of Ireland's Six Nations squad rated: Who stood out from the crowd?
Shining lights offer hope for South Africa tour
Published 22/03/2016 | 02:30
It was the season that saw Ireland relinquish their stranglehold on the Six Nations title as England bounced back from their World Cup heartbreak to claim the Championship.
Depleted from retirements and injury and handed a fiendishly difficult schedule, Joe Schmidt knew that winning a third trophy in a row was a tough ask and so it proved.
Yet, the frustration is that Ireland were not far away. They could have beaten Wales, should have taken France and clung in against England at Twickenham. By the time the ground hardened and their attack clicked, the prize had passed.
Ultimately, their world-class performers were too few and they came up short.
So, how did they rate?
Johnny Sexton 9
Came into the tournament on the back of a mixed season with Leinster and shipped a neck injury against Wales, but he fought through the pain barrier and shook off the attention brought about by Eddie Jones' inflammatory comments to put in a series of impressive performances. Still the best out-half in Europe.
Jack McGrath 9
If the Lions were off to New Zealand this summer, then the Leinster loosehead would be travelling as their starting No 1 after a brilliant campaign that saw him rack up 344 minutes out of a possible 400, which is some going for a man playing in such an attritional position.
Conor Murray 8
Three tries from a combined distance of about three metres, Ireland's fox in the box underlined his class and is one of a handful of players who Joe Schmidt can't be without
Robbie Henshaw 8
Possibly not as impactful as last year's campaign or the World Cup, but the Athlone native was still a consistent performer who showed at Twickenham that he can be this team's game-breaker. Made the most metres of any Irish player.
CJ Stander 8
Not perfect, but the one Ireland debutant to start every game proved what an addition he is to Schmidt's back-row options. A willing carrier, topping Ireland's charts, he needs to cut out the penalties but now an important part of the set-up.
Donnacha Ryan 7
Hard to believe now that he couldn't get ahead of Mike McCarthy for the first two games, such was his impact against England, Italy and Scotland.
Keith Earls 7
Finally enjoying a consistent run under Schmidt and reaping the benefits with some stellar displays. Defensively excellent, always committed, but Ireland could do with finding more ways to involve him.
Jamie Heaslip 7
Started and finished on a high with strong performances and finished top tackler, but finds himself increasingly in the land of big beasts in this era of giant No 8s. Ireland could do with more of what they got last Saturday from the vice-captain.
Jared Payne 7
The lynchpin of Ireland's defence, he was outstanding on one leg in Paris and was missed at Twickenham.
Josh van der Flier 7
This season's breakout star, he was impressive on debut and played well against Italy. Harshly cut for Scotland, he has a big future.
Ultan Dillane 7
Barely mapped before Christmas, he's now being included in potential Lions squads after 53 minutes as an international. His cameo in Twickenham was sensational.
Rory Best 6
The skipper carried himself well off the pitch and was hugely committed on it, but will have regrets about the early games when he might have asserted his authority more. Showed a lot of mental strength to bounce back from Twickenham lineout malfunction.
Simon Zebo 6
Now a live contender for Rob Kearney's No 15 shirt, the Corkman featured in all of Ireland's home games and offered a real attacking edge, although he was defensively suspect against Wales. Whether he's the right man to face South Africa is another matter.
Andrew Trimble 6
Exorcised some World Cup demons and was always committed, but never got near the attacking heights of 2014.
Mike Ross 6
Still the cornerstone of Ireland's scrum at 36. Absence was costly in first two games, but he remain defensively suspect in open country. Andy Farrell's input will be interesting.
Devin Toner 6
Finished on a high with his first try, but saw the lineout figured out in Twickenham and rarely had a lasting impact on games.
Richardt Strauss 6
Edged ahead of Sean Cronin in their battle for the No 16 shirt and served as willing understudy for Best.
Stuart McCloskey 6
Becoming something of a cause celebre, but the coach remains unconvinced. Excellent at times on debut in Twickenham, but never featured again and will struggle to supplant the Henshaw-Payne partnership.
Rob Kearney 6
Finding this season increasingly difficult to get into because of repeat hamstring problems, his attempted offload was costly in Paris but he played well at Twickenham. Determined to prove doubters wrong, but needs his body to play ball.
Rhys Ruddock 6
Won four caps off the bench, but couldn't supplant CJ Stander in the No 6 jersey. Made an impact when asked.
Finlay Bealham 6
Wasn't included in the initial squad, but ended up with a cap. Leap-frogged several high-calibre looseheads when Cian Healy went down, but future opportunities likely to be on other side of the scrum.
Dave Kearney 6
Was playing well before Guilhem Guirado took him out with a high tackle. Remains a trusted part of Schmidt's plans.
Fergus McFadden 6
Wasn't included in the initial squad, so to pick up three caps off the bench and a try against Italy was a good return.
Mike McCarthy 6
Went well against Wales and was putting it up France when he suffered a nasty concussion that ended his season.
Eoin Reddan 5
Still the most trusted back-up scrum-half at 35, but only saw 11 minutes of action as Schmidt was reluctant to take Murray off.
Nathan White 5
The New Zealander remains a firm favourite of the regime despite his difficult outing against Wales. Showed some deft touches in attack as the tournament went on.
Ian Madigan 5
Kicking the restart out on the full against France will haunt the man who was handed the No 22 shirt throughout the tournament, as will Schmidt's comments about his move to Bordeaux.
Kieran Marmion 5
Finally got his first Six Nations cap against Italy and played well, but found himself out in the cold again when Eoin Reddan returned to fitness. Clearly not trusted yet.
Sean O'Brien 5
Things could have been very different had O'Brien's hamstring not gone in Paris. Ireland needed him for more than 19 minutes.
Cian Healy 5
Got a three-year contract extension as another campaign passed by without the Lion making a contribution of note. Ireland could do with him being healthy in South Africa.
Sean Cronin 5
Makes an impact whenever is he brought off the bench, but is finding it harder to get among the replacements as Schmidt favours Strauss. A frustrating season.
Tommy O'Donnell 5
A strange campaign. Started against Wales, played for an hour against France and was then dropped for England and Italy before re-appearing for Scotland. His head must be melted.
James Cronin 4
Came into the tournament on the back of strong Munster form, a new contract and with an opening at loosehead and finished it out of the picture. Unused sub against Wales, he was part of the scrum problems in France. Can't have been good for his confidence.
Tadhg Furlong 4
Many see Furlong as the future Ireland tighthead and Ross's injury problems opened a door, but Schmidt and Greg Feek clearly think he has work to do and, like Cronin, he was dropped after Paris.
Paddy Jackson 4
A frustrating two months for the Ulster out-half who saw no Ireland action despite being in the squad throughout. Luke Marshall, the extra man in every match-day squad, is another Ulsterman who can't be happy with his involvement.
Joe Schmidt 6
Faced more criticism than ever before as the flow of success was stemmed. Ireland were unconvincing in attack against the better teams and looked vulnerable in defence at times, but there were enough extenuating circumstances for the blame not to be laid at the coach's door.
Andy Farrell's arrival will help, while he has big names to return ahead of the season-defining tour of South Africa.