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James Ryan plus one - Toner returns to compete in Ireland's lock stocks

Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane are the other two second rows in Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad.

FOLLOWING ON FROM yesterday’s look at Ireland’s front-row options for the Six Nations, we turn our attention to the second row today.

Andy Farrell has just four locks in the 36-man group that travelled to Portugal today for a week-long training camp, with World Cup starters Iain Henderson and James Ryan on board again, while Devin Toner and Ultan Dillane return to the squad after missing out on the trip to Japan.

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Second row

Ultan Dillane [Connacht, 14 caps]
Iain Henderson [Ulster, 53]
James Ryan [Leinster, 23]
Devin Toner [Leinster, 67]

The return of Leinster man Toner has been well-received after the towering Meath man was a shock omission from Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad. 

Toner was as surprised as anyone at Schmidt’s decision to include Munster man Jean Kleyn instead, but he has responded to the disappointment in impressive fashion with Leinster, racking up 830 minutes of action and performing very solidly. Toner’s work-rate, restarts, lineout, tackling, and rucking have all been of high quality.

irelands-devin-toner Toner is back in the Ireland squad. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The 33-year-old is now tasked with breaking up the World Cup starting second row pairing of Henderson and Ryan. It seems certain it won’t be the latter making way if Farrell does fancy a change.

Explosive 23-year-old Ryan is one of Ireland’s key players and already an ultra-consistent performer at Test level. His average of two metres per carry this season is second only to Leinster hooker Rónan Kelleher in terms of the tight-five forwards in Ireland’s squad.

Ryan is a seriously effective chop tackler, with a 98% success rate this season so far, while he has also become an elite defensive lineout jumper, making a position-leading seven steals in the current campaign. That defensive quality, usually at the front of the lineout, will be of particular interest to Farrell if he opts to go without Peter O’Mahony in his back row.

In terms of Ireland’s own lineout, it will be interesting to see who runs it. Henderson was the primary lineout caller during the World Cup but Ryan’s understanding of this area is continuing to grow and he may well be ready to assume the calling role, particularly if Henderson and Toner are vying closely for the other lock slot.

Ryan’s work-rate is exceptional, allowing him to get through huge amounts of ruck work along with his usual high numbers of carries and tackles. Ryan also scrummages on the tighthead side of the scrum and is powerful in that department.

The most exciting thing about Ryan is that he has so much scope to improve as a player. The hope is that Farrell and co. will push Ryan to continue improving his passing, offloading, footwork, decision-making, vision, choke tackling, stripping in tackles, and much more. Ryan has the potential to be a truly complete second row. 

Ulster lock Henderson wasn’t at his best during last year’s World Cup, his second visit to the tournament, but is an experienced Test second row with lots of qualities. At his best, the Ulster captain’s ball-carrying is excellent, featuring good footwork and leg drive. He has beaten 11 defenders this season – easily the best in this position.

irelands-james-ryan Ryan is a key man for Ireland. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Henderson is by some distance the biggest turnover threat around the pitch among Ireland’s second row options, with four jackal turnovers at the breakdown this season, and a further four in tackles. It’s a skillset the other locks simply don’t have.

As mentioned above, Henderson can run the lineout but he is not as intuitive a defensive lineout jumper as Ryan and has yet to pick off an opposition throw this season. Toner has also been more successful in this area, with five lineout steals in the current campaign.

Of course, Toner didn’t feature at the World Cup and so Henderson has had the more recent Test rugby but Farrell knows all about what the Leinster totem can offer thanks to his 67 caps. 

Toner’s level-headed demeanour has worked well in tandem with Ryan in the past, although it would make some sense for Farrell to back 27-year-old Henderson and 23-year-old Ryan to continue a locking partnership that only properly launched last season.

If Farrell can get Henderson to deliver the destructiveness he is capable of on a consistent basis alongside Ryan, he would have an aggressive, potentially dominant second row pairing.

Of course, Connacht man Dillane is also in the mix with Ireland, even if he is less experienced than the other three options available to Farrell.

When Dillane burst through England’s defence at Twickenham on his debut as a replacement at Twickenham in 2016, he looked destined to become a real feature in Ireland’s squad. It hasn’t quite worked out that way and Schmidt often preferred bulkier locks like Quinn Roux and Jean Kleyn in his squad.

ultan-dillane Connacht man Dillane is back in the mix. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Dillane is an outstanding athlete, built of fast-twitch fibres, but he has had to work hard to round out his second-row skills in terms of the maul, ruck, work-rate, restarts, and those less glamorous areas of the job. The 26-year-old has shown improvement in all of them.

Dillane’s average carry of 1.69 metres this season has him ahead of Henderson and Toner, while the Connacht man has beaten five defenders. Four lineout steals show his value in that area too, and he has demonstrated defensive consistency with a tackle rate of 92.5%. 

Dillane is a very tempting bench option for Farrell given his change-up power, and would even perhaps make more sense than the less dynamic Toner if Ireland opt for a starting pairing of Ryan and Henderson again. That said, Henderson could offer bench impact if Ryan and Toner start.

And so, Farrell has a big call to make in his starting second row and also on the bench. Back Henderson and Ryan to continue their partnership, or turn to Toner’s strong form and his understated form of leadership?

It’s eminently possible that Ryan will become Ireland’s primary lineout caller as well as tighthead lock in this campaign, with Henderson, Toner, and Dillane rotating in and out of the loosehead lock and bench slots. 

Should Ryan suffer injury, Toner will almost certainly slot into the tighthead slot, which he occupied in the years after Paul O’Connell’s retirement and Ryan’s emergence.

Possible Ireland second row v Scotland: Iain Henderson, James Ryan

Possible Ireland bench lock: Devin Toner

Tomorrow on The42, we’ll take a closer look at Andy Farrell’s options in the back row.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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