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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

Finding back row balance is key to Ireland's November hopes

Joe Schmidt has a number of options to choose from at the back of the scrum.

The Aviva Stadium awaits Samoa, Australia and New Zealand.
The Aviva Stadium awaits Samoa, Australia and New Zealand.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

IRELAND COACH JOE Schmidt has a range of back row options to pick from for the three November tests and it seems unlikely that the same trio will start every game. There are varying strengths with each of the available players, and finding the right balance between them could be crucial for Ireland.

Sean O’Brien is one of the most important players in the national set-up and offers a complete set of back row skills whether he lines out at openside or blindside flanker. The Leinster man is rightly lauded for his dynamic ball-carrying ability, but he has improved at the breakdown in recent seasons to the extent that winning turnovers is now a genuine strength of his game.

Having O’Brien in the team gives Ireland a better chance of winning games and performing well, meaning he is nailed-on for one of the first-choice back row slots. The 26-year-old is in excellent form and Schmidt will be relying on him to get Ireland over the gain-line and to have a telling effect around the ruck area.

Jamie Heaslip is a much-maligned figure in Irish rugby circles, but the extent to which he is rated by teammates and professional coaches speaks volumes about his true ability. The No. 8 doesn’t provide the spectacular line-breaks and offloads that someone like O’Brien does but at 29, his intelligence and experience are important for Ireland.

imageJamie Heaslip is hoping to retain the captaincy this autumn. ©INPHO/Colm O’Neill.

So if he’s not busting the defensive line or smashing the opposition, what is it that Heaslip does? He possesses a huge engine and his work rate allows him to get through mountains of work. He excels in the smaller details of games, cleaning out rucks efficiently, providing linking passes to the backs and using the most suitable technique when he tackles.

Competition for the No. 8 shirt comes in the shape of James Coughlan, who in truth hasn’t been at his best so far this season. However, Schmidt has rewarded his consistent performances for Munster over the last four years. At 32, the Cork man is a latecomer to the international scene, but he is a strong presence with ball in hand and it would be fascinating to see if he could step up another level.

The third back row spot for Ireland is for grabs at present, with Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry both having strong claims as the favourite. The Munster captain looks more powerful in contact this season and his leadership is another asset to his advantage. Henry has been brilliant for Ulster over the two years, and his competitive breakdown work would be useful against Samoa in particular.

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Schmidt may look to use both players at different times during the series, with Kevin McLaughlin and Roger Wilson also in contention. The former’s excellent line-out skills are attractive if Schmidt and forwards coach John Plumtree are worried about that area of the game, as last season’s form would suggest they should be. Rory Best’s throwing came under great scrutiny as Ireland failed to deliver regular clean possession from the line-out, but the fault was not solely with the hooker.

imageKevin McLaughlin offers something different in the back row. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.

Plumtree’s impact could be the biggest difference for Ireland’s back row this season. A former flanker himself, the New Zealander is renowned for his breakdown expertise, and it was an area in which the Sharks excelled during his time with the South African franchise. The likes of O’Brien, Henry and Heaslip will have enjoyed the chance to work with Plumtree on their ruck skills, even if it has been limited.

An interesting aspect that the new forwards coach brings to the party is his lack of in-depth familiarity with some of the players before he took up the role with Ireland. He will have very few prejudices or biases when it comes to selection of his back row and the possibility exists that he will have a preference for players who were not first-choice previously.

Whoever gets the nod in the back row for Ireland, Schmidt and Plumtree will be expecting their men to compete and dominate. There are huge challenges ahead, with the likes of Jack Lam, Michael Hooper and Richie McCaw on their way up north. All Blacks’ No. 8 Kieran Read is quite probably the best individual in world rugby at the moment and he represents the toughest test of them all.

Winning the battle of the back row will be crucial to Ireland’s chances of recording victories in the November tests, with Schmidt and Plumtree facing some taxing selection decisions.

Who would you pick in the back row for Ireland? Should the opposition have any effect on who the coaches select for each game? Can Ireland compete with Samoa, Australia and New Zealand in the back row?

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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