Tuesday 17 July 2018

Depth chart reading - Ireland have more back-up options but some key players are still irreplaceable

Rory Best has signed a contract extension with Ireland and Ulster
Rory Best has signed a contract extension with Ireland and Ulster

Des Berry

The Irish depth chart is getting deeper and deeper.

In 18 months, Joe Schmidt will take his men to a new World Cup frontier in Japan, with old ghosts to be cleared from the closet.

For all of the expectation now earned, there is still work to be done in building sounder foundations in all positions, four in particular.

The cruel curling finger of father time catches up with everyone, even Rory Best.

The intrusion of injury has halted Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney in the past and it could even come for Conor Murray between now and then.

Schmidt already has plans in place to deal with the disastrous scenario visited upon Ireland in 2015.

He said just the other week: “If you stand still, you get left behind.”     

HOOKER

In Position: Rory Best

Back-Up: Seán Cronin

Best Bet: Niall Scannell

Ireland captain Rory Best is precious cargo, with a new national contract taking him up to the World Cup.

The hooker will be 37 years young by the time the World Cup comes into view.

At the moment, there is no genuine second option to start and it will be interesting to see whether Joe Schmidt will take his captain to Australia in June.

Leinster’s Seán Cronin will be 33 in Japan and, perhaps, the loss of his squad place in November has been the best thing to happen to the Limerick man.

The simple fact he has won 52 of his 61 caps from the bench implies that his role is already defined.

The most logical candidate to make a play for a starting position is Niall Scannell, the former Ireland U20 captain.

The bite of injury has stalled the 25-year-old’s progress as a typical old-school Munster hooker with a rock solid set-piece.

SCRUM-HALF

In Position: Conor Murray

Back-Up: Kieran Marmion

Best Bet: Luke McGrath

Conor Murray has to be Ireland’s Player of the Six Nations.

The man is breaking new ground in his position for the lineout skills that are placed beside his passing, breaking, tackling, kicking (for position or even points) and his decision-making. 

There is always the appalling vista of ‘what if a great one goes down?’

At the moment, Kieran Marmion is second on the grid and has to be commended for his fearlessness when called on to play out of position.

It would have been very interesting to see which way Schmidt would have gone had Luke McGrath’s knee not given way.

Certainly, there is a sound argument to be made that the Leinster nine was in the form of his life in finally figuring out how to blend his natural breaking game with the fundamentals.      

OUT-HALF

In Position: Jonathan Sexton

Back-Up: Joey Carbery

Best Bet: Joey Carbery

For all the world, it looked like Jonathan Sexton was carrying an injury through the last three rounds of the Six Nations.

Of course, the warrior spirit prevents the out-half from saving his body for the must-make tackles. It just isn’t in his nature to pick his battles. Every man must be met with rigorous intent. 

Carbery has not started a single game at out-half for Leinster this season due to the progress of Ross Byrne.

It says everything about the 22-year-old that he can survive at test level on such meagre scraps.

There was a wonderful calm about his demeanour and composure to his decisions amid the pressure in Twickenham last Saturday.

FULL-BACK

In Position: Rob Kearney

Back-Up: Joey Carbery

Best Bet: Jordan Larmour

The only player to start in the two Grand Slam games of 2009 and 2018 is the most decorated Irish player in the history of the game.

The intermittent sting of injury to his lower back/hamstring has usually been overcome in time for the biggest games.  

The steely temperament and mastery of the basics of the position are not the ‘box office’ traits the public crave when Joey Carbery (left) and Jordan Larmour are burning defenders left and right.

All anyone needs to know is what Joe Schmidt believes – that Kearney is still the best man for this job.

However, he will be 34 years young by the time the World Cup is on the line.   

The rigidity with which Schmidt has stuck with Carbery as the out-half alternative might make quick learning Larmour – he will be 22 at the RWC - the future in the position.

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