Thursday 19 July 2018

Ruaidhri O'Connor chooses his top 50 current Irish rugby players

Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong top the charts
Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong top the charts

Ruaidhri O’Connor rates the best current Irish players but there’s no disputing who is top of the charts

1. Johnny Sexton

Distilling this campaign into one moment is an impossible job, but when it comes to the Reelin' in the Years of 2018, Sexton's drop goal in Paris is undoubtedly the incident that sums up the season.

Although the 41-phase move was a team effort, the out-half superbly conducted the orchestra, taking risks to push his team into position before holding his nerve to nail a superb kick.

Sexton drove Leinster back to the top of the European tree and then repeated the trick with an excellent display in the Guinness PRO14 final.

For Ireland, he was on top of his game all season and, while he didn't get a try, there was rarely a moment of good Irish play that didn't have his fingerprints all over it.

At 32, he was still going strong at the death as he led the team to a series win in Australia.

In a competitive field, Sexton stands tall as Leinster and Ireland's outstanding performer.

2. Conor Murray

Brian O'Driscoll recently said he regards Murray as Ireland's most important player and the scrum-half has delivered consistent excellence all season.

Although he never hit the all-round heights of his sensational Chicago display, his performances were consistently of a high standard for club and country.

Certainly, Joe Schmidt appears to cherish his presence in the side, as Kieran Marmion and John Cooney found out to their cost on tour as Murray started all three games - he started 10 of Ireland's 11 games this season.

With Munster he was a driving force in the run to the semi-finals and will have regrets about his performance in Bordeaux. His medal haul with Ireland helps ease the disappointment.

3. Tadhg Furlong

Despite a heavy workload with the Lions last season, the Wexford native not only confirmed his status as the world's leading tighthead prop, he also put further distance between himself and his rivals.

Superb in the set-piece, it is the 25-year-old's work around the park, his combination of power, fitness and ball-skills that makes him stand out from the crowd.

Excellent for Leinster as they overpowered a succession of opponents, it was his work for Ireland that marked him out. Deft pass in the build-up to CJ Stander's try in Twickenham was a highlight, as was his carrying in Australia and his super second-Test try was his first in international rugby.

4. Keith Earls

The Players' Player of the Year enjoyed his best season in a fine professional career with a series of superb performances for Munster and Ireland.

Despite a couple of ill-timed injuries, Earls was a key contributor to the November clean-sweep, the Six Nations success and Munster's run to the semi-finals in both competitions.

His Ireland team-mates waxed lyrical about his influence behind the scenes, while his hard work and never-say-die spirit was encapsulated in his brilliant tackle against Italy and his superb catch in the build-up to that drop goal in Paris.

5. James Ryan

Virtually unknown in September, Ryan is among the world's best second-rows.

The 21-year-old's emergence as a powerhouse of the Leinster and Irish engine room is a big factor in the successful campaign and it was notable he played all 240 minutes in Australia.

Strong in the carry, a superb tackler and a phenomenal workrate, he is a dream for his coaches and has put his injury issues behind him with a succession of impressive performances.

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No 5: James Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile

6. Cian Healy

After a number of seasons where injury prevented him from hitting the heights of his early years, this was a return to form from Healy, who was an integral player for province and country. One of only two players to have played in all 11 of Ireland's matches.

7. Dan Leavy

Ireland missed his physical capabilities against the Wallabies. His work-rate is phenomenal, his contact work is superb and he has quickly become an important player for Leinster and Ireland.

That he was voted Leinster's Player of the Year by his peers speaks volumes.

8. CJ Stander

Like Healy he played in every game and he was still driving the team forward in the final moments of the last game.

Stander's workrate continues to impress and he rarely takes a backwards step as he continues to add nuance to his game.

9. Jacob Stockdale

A record-breaker in the Six Nations, the big question for this 21-year-old winger is how does he follow a sensational breakout year. Ten tries in nine Tests was a remarkable return.

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No 9: Jacob Stockdale. Photo: Sportsfile

10. Peter O'Mahony

A driving force in Ireland's greatest season, producing a series of big displays in the Six Nations and stepping it up a level as skipper in Australia.

A key man for Munster, he didn't fire in Bordeaux.

11. Scott Fardy

Will go down as one of the great overseas recruits as he helped to galvanise the Leinster pack for their double tilt. Intelligent, determined and skilful.

12. Rob Kearney

Now Ireland's most decorated player, the full-back put a couple of injury-hit campaigns behind him to roll back the years with a series of high-quality outings.

13. Robbie Henshaw

Injury robbed him of the Grand Slam game, but he still managed to make a mark on Leinster's European run and was a key player on the Australian tour.

His tackle-turnover against Montpellier was one of the highlights of the year.

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Bundee Aki, left, and Robbie Henshaw of Ireland celebrate second test win

14. Bundee Aki

Has not been able to have the kind of attacking impact on the Irish side that he has with Connacht, but his powerful contribution cannot be overlooked.

15. Iain Henderson

Injury hampered his run-in, but Henderson was one of the main men for Ireland during the Six Nations and his increased confidence when calling lineouts has added to his importance. Ulster's most valuable player.

16. Garry Ringrose

Injury affected his early season involvement, but he ade a big impact when he came into the Ireland team midway through the Six Nations and starred in Leinster's run to the double.

17. Tadhg Beirne

One of the stars of the European season who might have made more of an international impact if he hadn't been playing in Wales.

Finally made his debut in Australia and looked at home.

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Tadhg Beirne

18. Jordan Larmour

A scorer of great tries, he dominated the interprovincial games and ended up with an important role as a replacement in the Grand Slam and Australia series win, while he started the Champions Cup and PRO14 final victories.

19. Devin Toner

Lost his starting place during the Six Nations, but finished strong for Leinster and then had an excellent tour of Australia.

20. Donnacha Ryan

No longer in Ireland contention, but superb for Racing in their run to the Champions Cup final.

21. Rory Best

Captained Ireland to one of their greatest seasons, but was rarely a standout performer and injury limited his involvement at Ulster. At 35, he's starting to show his age.

22. James Lowe

The most entertaining player in Irish rugby, he'd be higher up the list if the rules had not worked against his involvement in the European final. A breath of fresh air.

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Leinster's James Lowe. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

23. John Cooney

Still struggling to make the international impression he desires, but without him Ulster would have been lost this season. A superb acquisition. Ruan who?

24. Joey Carbery

Had some frustrating moments, but his attacking work in the early moments of the season were key to Leinster's pool win and he managed the game brilliantly in Twickenham.

25. Jack McGrath

Healy has moved ahead of McGrath in the pecking order, but the Leinster man is still a consistent high performer who rarely lets his standards slip.

26. Jean Kleyn

The Munster second-row was a big contributor in their run to the two semi-finals.

A standout performer, particularly in deep winter when they are required to win in difficult conditions.

27. Simon Zebo

A bit of a lap of honour after he announced his move to Racing and promptly lost his international place.

Still superb on the big days for Munster and he'll be sorely missed.

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No 26: Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile

28. Sean Cronin

Won't be happy with how it ended in Australia, but Cronin was a key man for Leinster who made a big contribution to the Grand Slam effort after missing out on November selection.

29. Rhys Marshall

Another import whose skills, energy and set-piece work were important contributions to Munster's run to the semi-finals.

30. Isa Nacewa

Not as influential as he has been in previous years as the years took their toll, but Leinster still found a way of getting him on to the pitch for the biggest days and he scored the winning penalty in Bilbao.

31. Jordi Murphy

Ulster-bound No 8 was one of the biggest contributors to Leinster's success and battled his way on to the Ireland bench.

32. Andrew Porter

Another breakout performer who played a part off the bench in Leinster and Ireland's wins. Powerful and skilful, he'll only get better.

33. Luke McGrath

Remains in a battle for the back-up Ireland No 9 jersey, but an important player for Leinster who helps control the tempo and complements Sexton.

34. Jack Conan

Finished with his best performance for Ireland and was a big part of Leinster's success - injury saw him lose his starting spot for the Champions Cup final.

35. Andrew Conway

Scorer of one of the tries of the season, excellent for Munster and he might have seen more Ireland minutes had it not been for injuries.

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Andrew Conway crosses for his try. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

36. Rob Herring

One of the standout performers for Ulster and highly rated by the Irish management, he finished with a flourish in Australia.

37. Chris Farrell

Had just given a career-best performance for Ireland when his cruciate gave way. Munster missed his physicality badly.

38. Rhys Ruddock

Injury struck during the second-half of the season, but he started the campaign like a train and returned for the finals.

39. Dave Kilcoyne

Big November, but untimely injuries saw him lose the Ireland jersey to McGrath. Strong for Munster.

40. Chris Cloete

Munster's new recruit was a powerhouse at the breakdown and they missed him when injury struck.

41. Jarrad Butler

Connacht's Player of the Year was a rare shining light in the west. Top all-rounder.

42. Rory Scannell

Overlooked at international level, but rarely put a foot wrong for Munster all year.

43. Fergus McFadden

Injury ruined the run-in, but McFadden played a big role in Leinster's campaign and earned an Ireland recall.

44. Ross Byrne

A big driver of Leinster standards when the big guns were away; didn't get his cap, but made real progress.

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Ross Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

45. Jamison Gibson-Park

Often squeezed out by the non-European rule, but stood in for Luke McGrath when needed and did well.

46. Sean O'Brien

A hugely frustrating second-half of the season undermined a serious effort before Christmas.

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Seán O'Brien. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

47. John Ryan

Was in danger of falling down the pecking order, but a strong Australian tour has him back on the right track.

48. Stuart McCloskey

Only one cap, but he was one of those who battled bravely in Ulster colours.

49. Kieran Marmion

Would have hoped for more as he had limited international involvement and a tough season at Connacht.

50. Stephen Archer

Probably the unsung hero of the Munster effort this season as he ousted John Ryan from the No 3 shirt and performed well.

- Article updated to include Garry Ringrose who was left out in error

Irish Independent

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