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The alternative XV Andy Farrell could pick for Ireland

If Ireland were hit with an injury or Covid crisis this autumn would they be able to cope? The answer is a resounding yes.

Zebo remains Ireland's best full-back.
Zebo remains Ireland's best full-back.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT WAS A decade of unrivaled desperation. Year after year Ireland would find new ways to be ridiculed, losing twice to Namibia in 1991, to Samoa in 1996, to a then-amateur Argentina at the 1999 World Cup. Coaches came and went but comic incapacity never left.

And yet every now and then they’d surprise you — Australia in 1991 and 1996, New Zealand in 1992, France in 1998 and 1999. You just couldn’t make any sense of it all, how a team that was so bad, so often, could end up looking half-decent every once in a while.

“Do you know what it was like?” Paddy Johns, the former Ireland captain, says. “It was like Crystal Palace going up against Manchester City. We just wouldn’t have had the depth. We had 12 or 13 really solid players most of the time. The days we’d 15 good men out was when we did well.”

These days it is different, the depth chart being so impressive that you could go beyond the original 35-man squad Andy Farrell named for the remainder of this year’s Six Nations tournament – ignore the 10 players who didn’t make that panel because of injury and still come up with a team that would give the first XV a run for their money.

To start with, you have Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan – who will appear in Saturday’s Champions Cup final. There is also Jack McGrath, a British and Irish Lion, who featured in all three tests on that 2017 tour. Then there is John Cooney, the highest points scorer in this year’s Champions Cup and that is before we mention Dan Leavy, a grand slam hero from 2018.

When you consider that we haven’t even included Devin Toner or Jordi Murphy in this fictional fourth XV, two things stand out.

No1, there has never been this depth of talent available to an Ireland coach ever before and secondly given how Covid-19 is causing havoc with sporting teams all across the world, Farrell is going to need every man standing by the time 5 December and the sixth game of this autumn schedule comes around.

Here is an alternative XV for the Ireland coach to choose from if a crisis strikes.

15: Simon Zebo (Racing 92)

Yes, there is this unwritten policy whereby you can only get picked for Ireland if you are playing your rugby in this country but the bottom line is that with Larmour and Will Addison injured, Zebo is the best full-back option Ireland have by a country mile.

Now 30, he has matured impressively and those early-career tendencies to take outrageous risks have been replaced by a cooler temperament. Add in his other qualities, a steadiness under the high ball; his athletic prowess, finishing skills, quick feet and defensive solidity and you have a guy on top of his game.

14: Rob Lyttle (Ulster)

Aside from those wings already selected by Farrell, you also have Dave Kearney – nine tries in seven Pro14 games last season; Craig Gilroy, scorer of a hat-trick on his previous appearance for Ireland; Keith Earls, who has a back injury and Robert Balacoune, who has been nursing a hamstring problem for some time.

That leaves us with Lyttle, a player in form, as his try against Edinburgh in last month’s Pro14 semi-final, highlighted.

13: James Hume (Ulster)

Quality and quantity rhyme for Andy Farrell in this department. Bundee Aki or Rob Henshaw? Garry Ringrose, if fit, has to start but Chris Farrell is a more than adequate deputy while Stuart McCloskey’s return to the squad was long overdue. That leaves us with Hume, McCloskey’s midfield partner at Ravenhill. Here is a reminder of what he did in the Pro14 final against Leinster.

Source: PRO14 Rugby/YouTube

12: Tom Farrell (Connacht)

He played superbly against Glasgow in the opening round of this season’s Pro14 and is an impressive operator. But there will always be questions over someone’s ability to step up from provincial to international level, and until they get tested in that environment, you can’t make a definitive judgement.

11: James Lowe (Leinster)

Okay, we’re cheating a little here as Lowe is not eligible for Ireland until November but the fact Farrell has included him in the training panel for this month’s Six Nations is indicative how highly he is regarded.

Certainly there is plenty to admire in terms of his finishing and athleticism. Defensively he can be a risk-taker, though, and better teams may expose that weakness.

10: Ian Madigan (Ulster)

Underrated by many – including Farrell by the looks of things, given how he has opted for Ross Byrne and Jack Carty as Johnny Sexton’s understudies for the French and Italy games – Madigan has plenty to offer. Ask Edinburgh about that.

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At his best, when he takes the ball flat, Madigan can remind you a little of Matt Giteau but there is a tendency to allow his 2015 World Cup quarter-final appearance against Argentina to cloud people’s judgement. Still, with Joey Carbery out with an ankle injury and Ben Healy still learning his trade, the idea that this 31-year-old should add to his 30 caps is not an outlandish one.

ian-madigan Madigan's ability to take the ball flat always gave Ireland options. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

9: John Cooney (Ulster)

The strangest thing isn’t that Cooney has won only 11 caps in his career or that only one of those has been from the start. No, the most surreal thing is that somehow he is now Ireland’s fifth choice scrum-half, with Marmion, Gibson-Park and Casey skipping the queue. No other player scored more points in the 2019/20 Champions Cup; only three others scored more tries. Post lockdown, his form has dipped but a lot can change between now and 5 December, date of Ireland’s sixth game this autumn.

1: Jack McGrath (Ulster)

His international career appears to be petering out but it’s worth remembering it is only three years since he was packing down with the Lions in New Zealand, featuring in all three tests on that tour. While Eric O’Sullivan, his Ulster team mate, is on the way up, a key question remains. If a crisis came in Paris, who would you want coming off the bench, the untested rookie or a veteran of front-row jousts?

2: Sean Cronin (Leinster)

Think of Cronin and you think of a golfer like Rory McIlroy, whose brilliance en route to the green is spoiled by his inconsistency once he has a putter in his hands. Well, that’s a bit like Cronin once he towels off the ball and prepares to throw into the line-out. Those dynamic runs are incredible but his throwing has to improve; otherwise he’ll remain on the outside looking in at Farrell’s squad.

3: Marty Moore (Ulster)

Again, in the Stade de France, with your scrum in trouble, who do you want coming off the bench? A prop with a perfect physique or a hard-nosed operator like Moore who can hold his own against the best?

marty-moore-sean-cronin-and-jack-mcgrath-with-the-trophy Moore, Cronin and McGrath - the alternative front row. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

4: Fineen Wycherley (Munster)

Is he better at blindside than in the second-row? Possibly so but the big Cork-man is worth taking a look at when you consider his work-rate, willingness to hit rucks, make carries and put the tackles in. There’s a touch of the Donncha O’Callaghan about Wycherley; that bloody-minded desire to put in a massive shift.

5: Donncha Ryan (Racing 92)

Like Zebo, Ryan is a victim of the unwritten rule which prevents foreign-based players getting picked for Ireland. Like Zebo, that rule should be erased in this instance because with Henderson suspended and Ryan Baird injured, Ireland’s options have thinned in this department.

You could go back to big Dev in the event of a crisis but he isn’t the player he was while Jean Kleyn failed to make much of an impression at last year’s World Cup. Ryan is better than the pair of them and also a superior option to Quinn Roux.

6: Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)

A tough boy with a ferocious work rate, Ruddock has been underrated throughout his career. Given the attrition rate in international rugby, it would be no surprise to see him back in green before we bid farewell to 2020.

7: Dan Leavy (Leinster)

Until we see him again, we won’t know if he will be the same player that lit up the rugby world in 2018. But he could be someone for Farrell to look at in November, when the intensity of the international schedule begins to bite.

8: Jack O’Donoghue (Munster)

At 26, O’Donoghue can no longer be thought of as a promising new boy, rather as the delivery man. Bear in mind Jordi Murphy has been conspicuous by his absence in Ulster’s opening Pro14 games this season whereas O’Donoghue has been more active and more in form.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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