Tony Ward: Top 10 players from the provinces who have led the way this season
Given that we're almost at that time of the year when the provinces give out the gongs for outstanding performances, we thought we would get our retaliation in first and nominate our top ten performers from all four over the course of the season to date.
It is, of course, a subjective judgement and one that is based on provincial form above everything else.
That said, our final choice has no hooker, no locks, no flankers and no wings, despite obvious contenders in all four sectors.
It does contains three Lions and six current Ireland internationals (as in capped this season) but the sole criterion for selection is club (provincial) form.
So from top down it's one of two 'import' players leading the way.
1 CJ Stander
For the second year running the Munster back-row forward is the outstanding performer in the land. They may choose a different Player of the Year (Stander has taken the last two senior awards) and that is their prerogative, but for this observer Stander continues to play to a consistent level of intensity that at times beggars belief. Irrespective of the mad-hatter rules governing international eligibility, the adopted Limerick man (and on that count I think I'm in a fair position to identify with him) has been quite simply the most complete import to Munster rugby bar none.
2 Tadhg Furling
These are golden times for front-row forwards - specifically props - in Irish rugby. After the famine comes the feast with the New Ross man in the vanguard (with respect to Jack McGrath and Cian Healy) of a new generation of top-quality scrum technicians. But in the case of Furlong, as with John Ryan down south, it is about so much more than technical ability alone. Mobility, allied to broken field impact whether with the ball or without, makes the modest Furlong hot favourite for the No 3 shirt in New Zealand.
3 Robbie Henshaw
Hard to believe but still in his first season with Leinster and already the former Marist schoolboy is a key cog in Leo Cullen's fast-developing machine. Henshaw epitomises all the key traits you want in a modern-day centre and indeed a professional rugby player, irrespective of position. In every game he plays he leaves nothing to chance and empties the tank in pursuit of the cause. With no little skill himself he is developing into the perfect foil alongside Garry Ringrose. We'll not draw comparisons but the new age Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll is already in place for Leinster and Ireland.
4 Garry Ringrose
He may wear the same numbered shirt in blue and green as his most famous predecessor but this number 13 is not BOD in disguise. Ringrose is very much his own man, more Brennie Mullin than O'Driscoll, but with the best of both men in terms of individual desire and team ethic. The latest off the Blackrock College conveyor belt is still a work in progress - how could it be any other way? Oh, and just for the record, you want to see him place-kick!
5 John Muldoon
Given what he achieved last year as captain of the province he loves so well, it could have represented the ideal time for the 34-year-old to call it a day. Thankfully, it never entered his mind and his form since September for a squad suffering from 'second-season syndrome' has been truly outstanding and in every possible respect. Muldoon is every bit as important, at this stage in his playing career, as the significantly younger Stander is to Munster. Watching Muldoon, particularly in adversity week in, week out, it's easy to see just how and where Henshaw learnt his trade.
6 Ruan Pienaar
With Ulster slipping off the radar somewhat, it would be all too easy to let the brilliant South African fade into oblivion. He may not be a 'project player' (God, I loathe that description) but in terms of impact in Ulster - both on and off the field - the former Shark and Springbok great (for that he assuredly is) just, like his Blue Bull colleague at Munster, is an adopted Ulster man in all but name. Ulster with and Ulster without Pienaar are two different entities entirely. John Cooney is a clever signing but the former Gonzaga and Connacht scrum-half has some boots to fill.
7 Tiernan O'Halloran
Whether through misfortune (injury), mindset (failing to produce a comparable level of performance to last year) and uncertainty (given the imminent departure of Pat Lam and Conor McPhillips) far too many Connacht players have let standards slip this time around. Not so O'Halloran who has been the epitome of consistency and the shining light behind the scrum from last season to this. I hope and trust he will get the opportunity on the upcoming Ireland tour to Japan to stake his claim for full-back selection in his own right come November. His natural instinct is to attack and in the modern game, despite the claustrophobic fear factor, you can not put a value on that.
8 John Ryan
It really is difficult to comprehend just how long John Hayes soldiered on his own for province and country. Now in Ryan and Stephen Archer, as well as James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne (another in hot form), Munster, like Leinster, is in a very good place on both sides of the scrum. Again comparisons can be a little misleading but certainly Ryan is making the type of impact with Munster that Furlong is at Leinster albeit the former is that much further down the road. Along with Niall Scannell, Ryan has been central in taking the province to a new front-row level.
9 Conor Murray
Injury has disrupted his season but fully fit and firing there is no better scrum-half in the northern hemisphere. His unflappable temperament makes him impossible to get at, despite Glasgow's best efforts. Like Pienaar at Ulster, Murray makes Munster a much more dangerous animal entirely. Saracens would still have proved a hurdle too high at this point in time but Murray's welfare is central to the southern province's aspirations.
10 Joey Carbery
My bolter on this list. It's seldom a player comes along that injects a wow factor right from the get-go. Producing at underage in 'Rock is one thing and, with respect to Clontarf, even at AIL level too; however, to replicate the skill-set whether wearing ten or 15 for province and country equates to a very special type of talent. I sincerely hope he doesn't slip between the two stools because at out-half he is simply electric and a nightmare for any opposition back-row. His defence at full-back is his current weakness at the highest level but just like Ringrose here for sure is a special talent.
Niall Scannell, Dan Leavy and Johnny Sexton Despite two disappointing Champions Cup results but with the Guinness Pro12 finale to come, all of the above puts Irish rugby in a pretty impressive place.
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