For the last number of years Ireland’s second row has been the permanent residence of Paul O’Connell and Donnacha O’Callaghan. There have been a few tenants to mind the property and some pretenders who have tried to flat out take it over, but ultimately the 4 and 5 jerseys have never strayed far away from the Munster duo.
Both men have been incredible servants to club and country, 170 caps between them, a coincidental 85 each, stands to show their incredible partnership. Both men were a part of the 2005 and 2009 British and Irish Lions tours and it is little wonder that other great second rows like Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll, have found themselves with limited international opportunities.
But, O’Callaghan and O’Connell are entering the twilight of the careers, much like the rest of Ireland’s “golden generation”. At ages 33 and 32 respectively the future of Ireland’s second row is soon to be the talking point of the pack, and just who will fill the massive void between front and back rows?
Staying in Munster there are options already waiting to blossom, Donnacha Ryan can slot in at second row or at flanker, and his ability in the line out makes him a worth candidate in the second row. Ryan is 29 later this year, so time is sadly against the 6’6 Limerick born powerhouse. With 18 caps to his name, Ryan may be a suitable stop gap in preparing the younger guard for the formidable level of test rugby. Sadly, Ryan is a short term option at second row.
A much younger but uncertain option is the 23 year old Ian Nagle. Some people in Munster were full of hype when he came on the scene in 2010 and put in an incredible showing in Munster’s victory over Australia, but a combination of injuries and poor form have dampened the flames that were surrounding the Cork Con club man. At 6’6 and 106kg he is a solid unit but with no real test yet to his name he still has much to prove. He has represented Ireland with the Wolfhounds twice and at underage level but there are question marks remaining and the coming 2 seasons will be pivotal in his future. Nagle is one to keep an eye on but not to get distracted by as there would seem to be better options available.
Ulster have been in flowing form this season and offer one such option. Brian McLaughlin has instilled a confidence and belief that is noticeable in every area of the pitch, especially in the towering presence of Dan Tuohy.
Tuohy is an English born lock who joined Ulster in 2008 and has established himself as a real contender to next name on the green jersey. Another 6’6 man mountain, Tuohy has just two caps for Ireland one of which came against New Zealand in 2010 where Ireland went down 66-28, Tuohy managed to bag himself a try in that game also. Tuohy turns 27 in June of this year making him one of the most suitable to come into the Irish set up. Ulster’s run in the Heineken Cup this year and last will only serve to give Tuohy more big game experience, with his burst of power and pace I’d fully expect him to feature heavily in Ireland’s tour of New Zealand this summer.
At 6’10 it is impossible to ignore Devin Toner in any situation, and that’s exactly why he is featuring in this list. Toner can sometimes look awkward and aloof on the pitch but don’t be fooled by his bambi on ice like running. Dev is just 25 and thus far as accumulated 55 caps for Leinster and 3 for Ireland. The Castleknock College man certainly offers an obvious route in the line out but as he demonstrated in a recent Pro 12 game against Edinburgh in the RDS, Toner isn’t the easiest man to stop when those long legs begin to pump. Toner’s ambitions may have been stalled temporarily this year, with Nathan Hines departing for Clermont, Toner must have thought this was his season to shine but opportunity has been limited in the last few months with the arrival of World Cup winning, Brad Thorn.
We’ll avoid the horrible pun of the All Black being a “Thorn” in Toner’s side (not really I was dying to use that!) but in truth, Toner will learn an awful lot from the All Black that will benefit him in the long run. He has been slow to live up to the initial hope that was around him three or four years ago but by no means has Toner been written off.
Connacht are often left languishing when it comes to players earning international call-ups, and despite having some great prospects at the Sports Grounds, it’s rare that these talents stay in the west rather than taking a move elsewhere in Ireland. Mike McCarthy is a player that is in contention to fit into the second row but much like Donnacha Ryan, time is against the 30 year old. McCarthy can slot in at second or back row but offers a solid option in either. Having joined Connacht in 2007 he has gone on to win over 100 caps and earned himself a call up to the Irish team in 2011. Sadly for the London born McCarthy, he’s been given just four chances and failed to feature or impact in the 2012 Six Nations.
It’s a pity McCarthy isn’t three to four years younger but realistically he too is just a short term option. That being said short term options are not necessarily a bad thing, he and Ryan may not have many years in their peak left but they may offer enough to allow the likes of Nagle or Toner to gain a little bit more of much needed experience before stepping into the fray.
There are others who may be ones to watch, some academy players around the provinces will no doubt want to kick on and try to impress, Ciaran Ruddock, brother of Rhys, at Leinster is one such player to keep an eye on, he’s just 22 and could be a real star of the future if he can kick on from the academy and step up. Ben Marshall at the Leinster Academy is also a notable option, if he can push himself into the senior side. Dave Foley in Munster is in a similar situation. He has made some first team appearances but has not yet shown his true worth; he is also 22 with a lot of potential and could benefit from the old guard of Pauly and Donners being at Munster, after all, who better to learn from?
While O’Connell and O’Callaghan have been terrific servants there comes a time when even the old family pet has to be put down, and Ireland are at a juncture where they must begin to introduce new blood now before its too late. In my own opinion Kidney is far too conservative when it comes to team selection. The Six Nations this year offered a great chance to bed in some new blood and yet it seemed the same names over and over with little reward.
The summer tour to New Zealand will be a difficult task, heading to home of the World Champions having never beaten them; Ireland will know this is more than just a summer tour. Kidney has failed to impress since 2009 and now that the majority of the Grand Slam winners are coming to the ends of their careers, it has to be time to look at youngsters. Ireland are in a good place with regard to locks, there is a balance of old middle and young to choose from and its important Kidney begins to bed them in now. At the risk of sounding obvious the set piece is a vital part of every game, and having a solid scrum and lineout cannot be over looked.
There is potential in abundance for the Irish second row, how long it is before we get to see it is the question that remains.
Credit – Rugby Picture