Joe Schmidt has included five Ulstermen in the Irish squad of 32 that will play three test matches against Australia this summer.
Jacob Stockdale, Rory Best and Iain Henderson were expected to travel but Schmidt has also handed touring places to Rob Herring and John Cooney.
For Cooney in particular it is a just reward for an excellent debut season at Ulster which saw him collect Ulster’s Player of the Season award, Supporters’ Club Player of the Season and the Rugby Writers’ Player of the Season.
Like Cooney, Rob Herring has been ever-present for Ulster this season and his performance on Sunday in the Champions Cup play off typified his season. I failed to give him the recognition that he deserved in my post-match player ratings but he was Ulster’s top tackler with 20 and only one miss as well as securing three turnovers. His high tackle success rate was a feature this season as he made a total of 197 tackles with success rate of 92% – he had the highest success rate of players to make more than 70 tackles at Ulster this season.
Best will continue as captain while it’s strange to think Henderson is now one of the senior players in the squad. Not only will Devin Toner join Henderson in the engine room but so will Ireland’s golden boy, James Ryan. The Leinsterman has been grabbing headlines recently with his unbeaten record, Grand Slam and Champions Cup victory, all at the age of 21. Once upon a time Ireland struggled with depth in this position but with the addition of Tadhg Beirne to the squad we’re beginning to see an Ireland squad that should be good enough to win a first test series in the Southern Hemisphere.
Beirne arrives from the Scarlets at Munster at the end of the season and while he has proved himself to be one of the PRO14’s best ball winners, he may have to contend with a spot on the bench in this upcoming tour. Ryan, Toner and Henderson are all international quality while in the back row, Beirne will jostle for a position with Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Add in Josh van der Flier and Sean O’Brien who are both currently injured, Ireland are looking well-stocked in the back row position. Schimdt looks favourably upon versatile players and Beirne’s ability to play lock, 6 or 8 will benefit him particularly when replacement spots are up for grabs.
Both Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery have been at the centre of attention in the media of late and they find themselves included on the plane to Australia. It’s looking like Carbery will be playing his rugby at Munster next season. Byrne has had an impressive season as deputy to Johnny Sexton at Leinster while Carbery has played most of his rugby at fullback. Byrne appears to be back up outhalf to Sexton at Leinster so I don’t see why this should be any different on the international scene. Like Beirne, Carbery’s versatility will set him above Byrne when Schmidt comes to picking bench spots.
Only three centres have been selected for the tour, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. Keith Earls’ ability to cover that position provides a fourth player however he is likely to occupy the right wing berth. I am surprised that at least one of Sam Arnold, Rory Scannell and Stuart McCloskey were not called up after decent seasons at their provinces.
Joe Schmidt delivered his first Grand Slam title and Ireland’s first since 2009 this season as well as a third Six Nations title and while his tenure is a success, I can’t help but think that he will be judged on his performance in the upcoming World Cup. In previous seasons he was justifiably criticized for a lack of squad depth however, it is looking like Ireland now possess a squad to finally reach a World Cup semi final.
Forwards: Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets, uncapped), Rory Best (Banbridge, 111), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere, 7), Sean Cronin (St Mary’s College, 61), Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf, 23), Cian Healy (Clontarf, 78), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch, 38), Rob Herring (Ballynahinch, 3), Dan Leavy (UCD, 9), Jack McGrath (St Mary’s College, 47), Jordi Murphy (Lansdowne, 20), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Con, 47), Andrew Porter (UCD, 7), Quinn Roux (Galwegians, 5), James Ryan (UCD, 8), John Ryan (Cork Con, 13), CJ Stander (Shannon, 23), Devin Toner (Lansdowne, 58)
Backs: Bundee Aki (Galwegians, 7), Ross Byrne (UCD, uncapped), Joey Carbery (Clontarf, 10), Andrew Conway (Garryowen, 6), John Cooney (Terenure College, 1), Keith Earls (Young Munster, 67), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers, 33), Rob Kearney (UCD, 83), Jordan Larmour (St Mary’s College, 3), Kieran Marmion (Corinthians, 21), Conor Murray (Garryowen, 64), Garry Ringrose (UCD, 13), Johnny Sexton (St Mary’s College, 73), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch, 9)