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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 20 February, 2020

Here is The42's Irish rugby Team of the Decade

Bob, BOD and beyond.

THE END OF the decade is here and the next one promises a new era for Irish rugby as Andy Farrell begins putting his shape on the national team.

Under Joe Schmidt and Declan Kidney on the Test-front and with the provinces often setting the standard in Europe, there has been plenty of success to celebrate between the island’s five professional teams.

But as December wears on, we have to boil down all that success and sift through the men who made it happen to name the best Irish players in their position over the last 10 years.

15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)

The next decade looks set to start without the veteran fullback, but Rob Kearney’s supreme ability to cover the back-field and offer up a safe pair of hands made him a constant favourite for Declan Kidney, Joe Schmidt and until quite recently his provincial coaches too.

rob-kearney-scores-a-try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His last decade closed with a Grand Slam and he doubled that tally in 2018 along with gathering three more Heineken Cup-winners medals.

14. Keith Earls (Munster)

Ireland’s leading try-scorer at Rugby World Cups and was one of the bright sparks in the 2011 quarter-final. Thrived the more he was left to ply his trade on the wing and through his electric pace and brave finishing has been a core element of Munster’s constant push towards the business end in Europe. 

keith-earls-celebrates-scoring-their-second-try Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ran him close: Wing was a highly competitive spot in this team and both Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble can count themselves unfortunate to lose out to Earls in the 14 shirt.

13. Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster)

One of Ireland’s all-time greats (not this team’s only one), his retirement in 2014 is now synonymous with grandiose farewells, but few begrudged it for O’Driscoll.

brian-odriscoll-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Helped Leinster claim a second and third European title this decade and, even with his body slowing his skill-set shone through as he helped land a Six Nations crown in Joe Schmidt’s first year in charge.

12. Robbie Henshaw (Connacht / Leinster)

A phenomenal athlete and powerful ball-carrier who has added power in Ireland’s inside centre slot. Used his ability to aid Connacht’s most unlikely Pro12 triumph in 2016 and, wearing blue two years later, secured a European medal.

On Ireland duty, he was immense in Chicago, sorely missed in the early rounds in Japan and on heavily involved in the pivotal closing minutes in Paris when the Grand Slam dream was almost extinguished before Ireland knew it existed. 

robbie-henshaw-celebrates-after-the-game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ran him close: Competition is strong in midfield for Ireland these days and Henshaw’s current team-mates Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose have been excellent in the second half of the decade too. O’Driscoll’s long-term partner Gordon D’Arcy was also high in our consideration, while Jared Payne impressed in the centre and fullback for Ulster and Ireland.

11. Simon Zebo (Munster / Racing 92)

A Munster debut in early 2010, by the time he left he was the southern province’s all-time leading try-scorer on 60 (Keith Earls is on 56, steadily reeling him in). A terrifically talented player who offered attacking threat wherever he was deployed in the back three and he has only increased that reputation since moving to Paris.

simon-zebo Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ran him close: Over a much shorter period of time Jacob Stockdale has lit up Irish rugby since winning his first cap a week before Zebo’s last. The broader evidence of Zebo’s ability earned the Corkman the nod.

10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster / Racing 92)

The driving force behind Ireland and Leinster attack for a decade. The 2018 World Player of the Year took the deserved gong after acting as the guiding hand for a European title (his third in the 2010s) and the Grand Slam. Which, as we’ve noted already, would have been lost on the opening weekend if not for this.

Source: Kevin O’Hara/YouTube

Ran him close: The peak of the Ronan O’Gara-Sexton rivalry was the 2011 World Cup, but the Munster playmaker was beyond his peak by then. His retirement in 2013 means Sexton was almost unopposed for this shirt for close to seven years.

9. Conor Murray (Munster)

Steadily worked his way through the competition on Ireland duty while at the 2011 World Cup after helping Munster claim a Pro12 title. Was rightly considered among the world’s very best scrum-halves in the middle portion of the decade. His accuracy with the boot and fluid passing set him apart from rivals over the course of the last 10 years.

conor-murray-kicks-a-penalty Murray kicks at goal during Ireland's Grand Slam game at Twickenham. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

1. Cian Healy (Leinster)

Phenomenally consistent over the course of the past decade. Man of the match in Ireland’s landmark win over the Wallabies at World Cup 2011 and has continually proven himself to be a powerful, uncompromising presence in the loose and at set-piece.

Played a key role in all three of Leinster’s Heineken Cup triumphs this decade and also claimed three Six Nations Championships with Ireland. 

cian-healy Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ran him close: Jack McGrath, and latterly Dave Kilcoyne, created serious competition for Healy. But when the Clontarf man has been at the peak of his powers there has been no one to rival him.

2. Rory Best (Ulster)

Hung up his boots as one of the most successful Ireland captains. The Ulster man made himself essential for Ireland through the strength of his breakdown work as he became a master over the ball at ruck-time.

Proved remarkably resilient and resistant to injury, while displaying an engine that belied his age as he reached 37 before hanging up his boots.

rory-best-leaves-the-pitch-on-his-100th-appearance-for-ireland Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Ran him close: Sean Cronin was used to devastating effect by Leinster during the past decade, but the Limerick man was never quite able to oust the Poyntzpass veteran at Test level.

3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)

A gamechanger in so many ways. Tadhg Furlong forced his way into Leinster and Ireland setups through his scrummaging work, but his ability to play outside the set-piece brought an invaluable extra dimension for his teams.

His explosive power is beautifully complemented by his agility and ball-handling skill, which was best displayed when picking England apart in Twickenham on Grand Slam day.

tadhg-furlong-celebrates-with-the-pro14-and-champions-cup-trophies Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ran him close: Mike Ross helped to mentor and shape Furlong’s fundamentals after acting as a cornerstone of the Ireland pack.

4. Donnacha Ryan  (Munster / Racing 92)

One of the tightest calls in our team is shaded by Tipperary’s finest. Injury haunted him for periods in the early part of the decade, but Ryan continually brought the hardest of edges to the Munster and Ireland pack. Looked set to take the mantle vacated by Paul O’Connell but had to instead add his weight to Racing 92, where he has continued performing to an exceptional standard.

donnacha-ryan-after-the-game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ran him close: Devin Toner has been a totemic figure in the second row for Ireland and Leinster and is only very marginally edged out by Ryan in this pack.

5. Paul O’Connell (Munster)

An iconic leading man who so often drew the very best of players that surrounded him. Displayed commendable endurance and athleticism to perform to the peak of his powers right up until a devastating hamstring injury during the World Cup pool win over France ended his career.

paul-oconnell-celebrates Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ran him close: James Ryan’s time will come.

6. Peter O’Mahony (Munster)

A skilled and intelligent blindside whose dogged determination often earns most of the plaudits sent his way. An exceptional line-out defender and the type of player and leader every team wants.

peter-omahony-wins-a-line-out-over-maro-itoje Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ran him close: CJ Stander continues to be an explosive element in Ireland and Munster packs and could also be considered for the number 8 role here. Stephen Ferris formed part of a brilliant back row in 2011, but his 2014 retirement denied Ulster and Ireland a true powerhouse for the second half of the decade.

7. Sean O’Brien (Leinster)

Currently on London Irish’s books, but beset with injury. The Tullow Tank is that rare beast, a northern hemisphere player who forces even Kiwis to remember their name.

Notable by his absence from Ireland’s sensational 2018, but a powerhouse in contact and a brilliant breakdown exponent, O’Brien for a time was this nation’s most important player. 

sean-obrien-with-kieran-read-and-ngani-laumape Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ran him close: Anxiety over O’Brien’s absence in 2018 was utterly washed away thanks to Dan Leavy’s impact. But the Dubliner has not been able to lay as much of a track record as O’Brien.

8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)

A cornerstone of Ireland’s pack up until 2017. A brilliantly effective back row who so often set the standards for Ireland and Leinster. Claimed two Six Nations medals after aiding Leinster’s back-to-back European successes in 2011 and 2012.

jamie-heaslip-celebrates-after-the-game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

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