Having only made his senior Connacht debut in 2012, it might have been expected that this year would be a slow-burning one for the 20-year-old. However, his scintillating form has made him one of the stars of 2013, with a recent two-year contract with his province coming as a relief to supporters who had feared wealthier provinces and clubs would swoop.
Henshaw made his Ireland debut against the US in June, before appearing off the bench against Canada a week later. He was limited to just seven minutes on the pitch against Australia in November, but the opportunity to work closely with Brian O’Driscoll in training was a valuable experience. A return to the outside centre position at the start of the current season has given us a glimpse of Henshaw’s potential to get even better.
His power is truly remarkable for a man of his age, demonstrating that he is built for international rugby. Henshaw’s skillful handling, fierce competitiveness and humble nature mean his rise is likely to continue in 2014.
The 24-year-old made his Leinster debut back in 2010, but this was the year he announced himself as a force to be reckoned with. Beefed up and fitter after years of focused strength and conditioning work with Leinster’s excellent backroom staff, McGrath burst into the second half of the year in particular.
Cian Healy’s absence for the first two games of this season allowed the St. Mary’s club man to impress in the Pro12 in September, and he took his chance wonderfully. Heineken Cup cameos against the Ospreys and Castres followed, before Joe Schmidt decided to include McGrath in Ireland’s squad for the November internationals.
McGrath in possession during Ireland’s November Tests. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
His man of the match performance on debut against Samoa was unforgettable, and he followed that with substitute cameos against Australia and New Zealand. His first two Heineken Cup starts in December rounded off a superb year.
A strange one to highlight after the two younger men above, but 2013 was a year in which Ryan went from being an Ireland squad member to one of the most important players in the country. With Paul O’Connell missing for the Six Nations, it was Ryan who stepped up to the mark to add aggression and will power to a poor Irish team.
2012 was the year in which Ryan made himself first-choice for Munster, but this year saw him copper-fasten that transformation. His performances against Harlequins and Clermont in the Heineken Cup were just as important as the contributions of O’Connell, and highlighted the need for the province to secure his contract beyond 2014.
The fact that clubs such as Perpignan and London Irish showed such interest in signing Ryan points to how far his reputation has risen. Three more years in Ireland should see even more improvement from the man who has just turned 30.
The New Zealand native’s time with Ulster got off to a cruel start in 2011, when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in just his third game. Having worked his way back from that injury in 2012, this year has seen Payne showing the class that encouraged the northern province to pursue him in the first place.
Payne has been a classy presence for Ulster in 2013. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
In 2013, Payne has gone from a mere project player to being the man many consider as Brian O’Driscoll’s long-term replacement at outside centre for Ireland. The 28-year-old qualifies for Ireland in 2014 and it seems certain that he will be capped. It’s not just supporters and media who have awoken to Payne’s ability in 2013 though.
Many of his Ulster teammates have highlighted the growing influence the fullback/centre is having on the province’s game plan this season, with his intelligent rugby brain meaning he has become a key player for them.
The Munster scrum-half was first-choice with his province and country in 2012, but it was this year that saw him rise to world renown. A strong Six Nations campaign for Ireland was followed by superb Heineken Cup displays against Harlequins and Clermont, before Murray got a well-deserved call up for the Lions tour of Australia.
Such was the 24-year-old’s impact on that trip, his omission from the starting XV for the final Test of the series was a talking point. Regardless, the Limerick man left a lasting impression on world rugby and returned to Ireland vastly improved. His displays for Ireland in November backed up that assertion, particularly his powerful performance against the All Blacks.
Ireland now have a player who is close to, if not already, world-class and the doubts that many had about Murray’s ability last year have completely evaporated.
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