Tuesday 24 October 2017

Embarrassment of riches for Joe Schmidt - Five contenders for the number one jersey

Cian Healy and Jack McGrath have dominated the Ireland No 1 jersey but there’s a number of contenders lining up to compete for the position Picture: Sportsfile
Cian Healy and Jack McGrath have dominated the Ireland No 1 jersey but there’s a number of contenders lining up to compete for the position Picture: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

When Cian Healy burst onto the scene, it seemed almost inconceivable that so soon down the line would there be this number of quality looseheads fighting for the Ireland No 1 jersey.

Healy's raw strength and ability around the pitch hadn't been seen for some time in this country, and although he has shown glimpses of a return to the kind of form that saw him heralded as one of the best looseheads in the world, there is no doubt that injuries have taken their toll over the last couple of years.

Jack McGrath waited in the wings for long enough and didn't need a second invitation to seize his opportunity when Healy was condemned to lengthy spells on the sidelines.

"I'm training as hard as I can and I'm in the best shape I've been in for a couple of years," Healy reported this week.

"I'm putting my best foot forward to get selected so hopefully it happens. But at the same time, Jack is a very good operator and he's done exceptionally well whenever he's been picked in the last few years. It's a good test for me now."

If the Lions squad was picked right now, McGrath would certainly be a potential starter.

There isn't a club in Europe that boasts such riches that Leinster have at loosehead and that's before even mentioning the up and coming Peter Dooley and Andrew Porter - the latter is a certain future Ireland international.

The fact of the matter is that there have never been as many quality looseheads in Ireland as there are right now.

Had Dave Kilcoyne been born in a different era, he surely would have won more than the 17 caps that he already has to his name.

The Limerick native has had his problems at scrum time in the past but Munster's resurgence this season has been aided by their solid set-piece and Kilcoyne has been at the heart of that. His huge ball carrying ability also continues to provide Munster with ideal attacking platforms.

Positive

"I've always been a ball carrier," Kilcoyne says. "Rassie (Erasmus) wants us playing to our skills - if he thinks carrying is my thing he wants me carrying as much as possible.

"He has put in great systems here, he has a real positive coaching idea with great plans for the club. Tactically, we analyse very well, we prepare very well, but the best thing about him is that he allows us to express ourselves.

"Nobody feels constricted. It's the other way around. You'd probably find yourself out of the team if you weren't expressing yourself or trying things."

James Cronin's timely return from injury for the 'A' team last weekend will keep the pressure on Kilcoyne but both players face a huge task in trying to usurp McGrath and Healy from the first-choice Ireland matchday squad.

Such have been Kilcoyne's performances over the last 18 months, it is little surprise to learn that several clubs including Stade Francais and La Rochelle are monitoring his situation.

The 28-year-old's contract expires at the end of the season and although the likelihood is that he will remain with his home province, given the queue he has ahead of him at international level, he will be keeping his options open.

The same can be said for Denis Buckley who, despite having been one of Connacht's best players last season, still cannot get international recognition.

Buckley is still uncapped and like Kilcoyne is out of contract in June. Gloucester and Sale have already signalled their interest behind the scenes but Connacht will be desperate to keep one of their most consistent performers.

Up north, Kyle McCall has made the Ulster No 1 jersey his own and was rewarded with a two-year contract extension earlier this year.

The 24-year-old from Belfast represented Ireland at U-20 level four years ago but is yet to spend any significant amount of time in Carton House.

For all of the looseheads' undoubted scrummaging ability, there has also been a noticeable increase across the board in their skill-sets.

Ireland's skills coach Richie Murphy touched on it last month and the work being done at the provinces is unquestionably helping mould each prop into much more than just an old-school scrummager.

"We worked a lot on the offload in pre-season, together. Not individually. It was just a skill we worked on," McCall explains.

"With my wee brother, when we were younger I'd throw the ball about a good bit and it just came naturally.

"It was tough at the weekend (against Clermont) trying to keep up with the pace of the game, but it's something I quite like to do."

With McGrath certain to be with the Lions next summer and Healy also likely to travel, Ireland's tour to America and Japan will provide a rare opportunity for Ireland's other looseheads to impress.

They each face an unenviable task of trying to shift the world-class McGrath from his place in the team. But McGrath's career path is proof that you have to make every chance count when it comes to gaining regular international recognition.

Ireland have never had so many quality loosehead options at their disposal. Joe Schmidt and the IRFU will find it almost impossible to keep them all happy.

For a position that has regularly been dominated by the same familiar faces down through the years, it has now become a genuine weapon that Ireland can be confident will remain potent for the foreseeable future, at least.

1 – DAVE KILCOYNE

Is enjoying something of a rebirth at Munster and is very much coming into the prime of his career. Kilcoyne’s scrummaging has improved immeasurably while he remains a very powerful ball-carrier.

2 – JAMES CRONIN

An early-season injury has hindered his progress in trying to impress Rassie Erasmus but Cronin is a very accomplished loosehead and will be eager to recapture his form and add to his three Ireland caps.

3 – DENIS BUCKLEY

Very unlucky to still be uncapped, Buckley is back after injury and if he can hit the levels that he did last season, he will surely be in with a shout of being included for Ireland’s summer tour.

4 –KYLE McCALL

Enjoying a regular run in Ulster’s starting XV, McCall is a capable operator around the park but faces a lengthy queue at international level.

5 – ANDREW PORTER

Has built on an excellent U-20 World Cup in the summer by making his Leinster debut. If Porter manages to get more game time between now and the end of the season, he will be in with an outside shout of making the Ireland squad in June.

Irish Independent

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