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Hard luck or hard done by? Should there be more Ulster players on the Ireland team?

Ulster’s form has been impressive but you can’t argue much with Andy Farrell’s recent record. The Ireland coach has delivered results.

Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

THE MOST SIGNIFICANT team selection of the Andy Farrell era came last November. You could have sworn it was Leinster that New Zealand were facing in Dublin that day rather than Ireland, 12 of the starting XV coming out of Leo Cullen’s set-up.

After the risk got its reward, a pattern was set. Ireland won 29-20 and have continued to win most of their games since, a defeat in Paris and another in Eden Park their only blips on an otherwise excellent recent record of 14 wins from 16 Tests.

At the heart of the success has been consistency, continuity in their play coming on the back of continuity in their selection.

By and large, their starting XVs for the biggest games have been loaded with Leinster players, 11 for the win in the decisive test of their New Zealand tour to Wellington, 12 for the previous week in Dunedin, 11 for the 32-15 victory in Twickenham.

In contrast, Ulster’s only representatives in those games were replacements Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell and Rob Herring, although Henderson did start in the November Series victory over the All Blacks in Dublin.

Should there have been more?

On Saturday, the Ulster coach Dan McFarland, was asked about Stuart McCloskey’s status in an international context.

The big centre changed the game in Belfast midway through the second quarter when a mixture of power and panache saw him take two Connacht defenders out of the equation before he offloaded to Luke Marshall to run in the game’s opening try.

stuart-mccloskey-is-tackled-by-tom-daly Stuart McCloskey excelled on Saturday. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

It was an outrageous piece of skill, something Irish fans rarely see, not just because few other Irish players have the ability to execute a play like that, but also because Irish fans have only had the opportunity to see Stuart McCloskey in a green shirt on six occasions.

He isn’t the only Ulster player who can be regarded as unlucky. Scrum-half Nathan Doak, and before him, John Cooney, as well as tighthead Marty Moore and winger Robert Baloucoune, could all make compelling arguments to say they should have won more caps, or indeed just one cap in Doak’s case.

That, in turn, leads to the next question. If McCloskey should be in, then who should be out? Bundee Aki or Rob Henshaw? Both players, as Ulster coach, Dan McFarland pointed out on Saturday evening after Ulster’s 36-10 win over Connacht, have toured with the British and Irish Lions.

“It is an ongoing question, it is a debate,” said McFarland. “In another man’s world, Stu plays every game for the last five years for Ireland. It depends what you want (as a head coach), because he offers so much.

“But to say he should definitely be playing every week (for Ireland) is also to take away from the competitive nature in that position. I mean you have got British and Irish Lions (Henshaw and Aki) playing there so you could say he is unlucky that he is among a cohort of centres in Ireland that are playing at an unbelievable level.

“I would love to see Stu wearing an Ireland jersey and I think he has been brilliant. He offers different dimensions to other players. One of the problems in the past is he was probably labelled early on as just being a dumptruck up the middle of the pitch but he is ridiculously skilful. His ability to take the ball to the line and pull back those passes is one of the best around. I am sure if his name was called he would do a great job.”

The same could be said for Moore, Doak and Baloucoune – the latter pair selected to travel to South Africa for Emerging Ireland’s three-game tour. At this stage, a year out from the World Cup, it isn’t too much of a leap to believe that both players could force their way into Farrell’s travelling squad, and beyond that his team.

nathan-doak-with-josh-murphy Doak has been picked by Emerging Ireland. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Nothing is ever set in stone. You only have to look at how Jack Conan started the 2021 Six Nations on the fringes of the Ireland squad and ended that season as a British and Irish Lion to get an indication of how quickly things can change in rugby. Similarly, look at Jamison Gibson-Park; he was Ireland’s first choice before he was Leinster’s.

Doak, a youngster who broke through at Ulster last year, has an extraordinary kicking game, plus he is brave, skilled, and physically imposing. The fact he has made this Emerging Ireland squad is a clear sign he could be fast-tracked into the senior set-up for the November series.

Baloucoune and Jacob Stockdale, the latter returned to competitive rugby on Saturday after a year’s absence, also have a good shot at breaking into the Irish Test XV, Stockdale’s credentials backed up by what he did for Ireland in the past, Baloucoune’s by the promise of what he could do in the future. Remember a year ago hardly anyone had heard of Mack Hansen. That shows how quickly a door can open particularly if you fit a certain athletic profile. Farrell places a high value on fitness and speed. Those are qualities Baloucoune does not lack.

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He does lack a sizeable number of international caps, though. Most Ulster players do. As a team they have consistently been one of the best in the URC/Pro14 over the last four years plus they’ve pulled off some big results in Europe. But Leinster have won more. More significantly, since that win over the All Blacks last November, when the Ireland team became Leinster-loaded, they’ve backed it up with results in a green jersey.

That leaves Doak, McCloskey, Stockdale and Baloucoune playing a waiting game, knowing that if they are given a chance, it has to be taken. McFarland certainly does not doubt them.

“Stu has made really good improvements on his defensive leadership; he is a really good defender. Stu is not massively vocal but he is a guy who goes about his business and is able to give confidence to other guys around him. Generally speaking, all the guys who play alongside him love doing so and why wouldn’t you?”

The Ulster coach also mentioned prop Moore’s scrummaging abilities, pointing out how he is one of the best at his trade in Ireland. Yet Farrell prefers Moore’s Ulster team-mate, Tom O’Toole, just as he rates Treadwell higher than Alan O’Connor, even though it was Moore and O’Connor who tended to start Ulster’s biggest games last season.

On Saturday another new kid emerged from the production line, hooker Tom Stewart showing an explosive burst of pace to score one try and set up another. He has just the sort of player Farrell tends to go for, hence his fast-tracking onto the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa.

“If he carries on the way he is developing then he will become a really good player for us,” said McFarland. “He is not the finished article but he has got to keep going, got to keep developing physically and he has got to keep developing his skill set. His ceiling is obviously high.”

Next year’s World Cup may come too soon for the 21-year-old Stewart. But if he does make rapid progress and edge out provincial rival Rob Herring, he’ll find himself in familiar company in the Ireland set-up. Henderson, O’Toole, even Treadwell after his summer tour, and Stockdale if he stays fit, will almost certainly be in France.

Doak is another who should be keeping his luggage bags handy. McCloskey, Baloucoune, Mike Lowry, James Hume and Nick Timoney will probably get a chance over the next 12 months. The question then is whether they are good enough to take it.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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