Rugby: United Rugby Championship Round 3 review and 6 Nations squad preview…

Leinster 36 Edinburgh 27 

Munster 45 Dragons 14 

Connacht 22 Ulster 20 

As the dust settles on a good, if ultimately unsuccessful, world cup campaign, the focus is once more on how the provinces are doing in the URC. Connacht lead the table on 13 points, having won three from three home matches, their latest being a highly competitive and entertaining 22-20 win over Ulster. Munster are in second place, on 12 points after two bonus point wins and a draw. Leinster are in 6th. place, on 10 points, after two bonus points wins and a loss to Glasgow away. Ulster are in 7th. place, also on 10 points, despite this latest setback, but will be wondering how they blew a 20-3 lead shortly after half time in the end game. Shades of their second half collapse against Leinster last season, which presaged a very disappointing end to their season. 

It’s worth noting that Ireland have been slower to release World Cup players back to their provinces than all except South Africa, although Wales have just played a Test against the Barbarians, which left Munster’s opponents, the Dragons, also short of their international contingent. So far, only Tom O’Toole for Ulster, and Craig Casey and Jack Crowley for Munster have reappeared in their provincial colours. A callow Leinster side lost to a Glasgow team containing most of their international players and beat an Edinburgh side also close to full strength. 

Spare a thought for Leinster academy prop Jack Boyle. In successive weeks he’s been up against Scottish world cup tight heads Zander Fagerson and WP Nel, with the Sharks 122 kg  behemoth Hanro Jacobs in between. Not content with almost holding his own in the scrums he has contributed mightily in the loose as well. Another Cian Healy in the making?  

With McKee, Healy, Milne and Byrne injured, and Porter, Sheehan, Kelleher and Furlong unavailable, fourth choice hooker, Lee Barron, just out of the academy, has also been outstanding. The Leinster reserve front row yesterday had a combined total of 5 caps and included two first year academy players fresh from the u20’s, and an amateur player, Dylan Donnellan, from the Clontarf AIL team who had joined the squad as a temporary signing just a few days before.  

There is something of a propping crisis in Irish rugby with the cupboard very bare when one goes below the international squad players. Ulster let Kane and Toomaga-Allen go and replaced them with two journeymen tightheads, James French and Greg McGrath. They have recruited the first choice Springbok loosehead Steven Kitshoff from Stormers to replace Scottish Lion Rory Sutherland, which doesn’t say much for their evaluation of local loosehead talent.  

Munster, too, have had to turn to their academy looseheads, Kieran Ryan and Mark Donnelly, in the absence of Kilcoyne and Loughman, and have recruited tighthead John Ryan for a third time to make up the numbers. Hopefully the early exposure of all this academy talent accelerates their progression and doesn’t lead to any serious injuries. 

Leinster never replaced Vahk Abdaladze who became non-Irish qualified and left for Brive following his capping by Georgia. Michael Ala’alatoa is said to be leaving for Clermont next season, so they have no-one to support Furlong. Tom Clarkson simply hasn’t been good enough, and academy tightheads Temi Lassisi and Rory Maguire need time to mature in what is typically a late blooming position. If Jacques Nienaber is to add value, he could do worse than bring a top South African tighthead like Vincent Koch (33), Frans Malherbe (32), or Trevor Nyakane  (34) with him, although an emerging SA prop with an Irish grannie would be even better. 

With only Sexton and Earls retiring from rugby, and perhaps Herring (33), Murray (34), O’Mahony (34) and Kilcoyne (35 next month) calling time on their international careers, there are not going to be too many vacancies in the Ireland 6 Nations squad. Unlike France or perhaps England, Ireland don’t do mass clear-outs of older players once a world cup is over. Anyone who wants to break into the squad is going to have to be knocking on the door pretty hard. Carbery’s latest injury won’t help his chances, so the door may be ajar for Sam Prendergast to slip in as a development project.  

Baloucoune and Stockdale have been unfortunate with injuries and Larmour’s form has been a tad disappointing, so perhaps opportunity knocks for Shane Daly, Calvin Nash, or Tommy O’Brien to slip in to replace Earls. Caolin Blade looks the form scrum half to come in if Murray retires, although Doak may have something to say about that. Tom Stewart (22) or Diarmuid Barron  (25) might come in for Herring and Cian Prendergast (23) looks in pole position to come in if O’Mahony retires. The cupboard at loose head looks pretty bare, however, with Cian Healy (36) hardly one for the future. 

Others to impress so far this season who could make the squad if Andy Farrell picks a 6N squad bigger than the 33 man World Cup squad, include Harry Sheridan (22) (Ulster), Gavin Coombes (25), Thomas Ahern (23) and academy lock Edwin Edogbo (20) (Munster), Cathal Forde  (22) and Conor Oliver  (28) (Connacht), and Cíaran Frawley (25), Jamie Osborne (21), Max Deegan (27) and Scott Penny (24) (Leinster). Surely Andy Farrell will pick more than one specialist 7 this time to back up Van Der Flier? Currently uncapped players over 30 probably need not apply. 

Obviously, its early days yet, and there is still plenty of time for players to force their way into consideration before the 6 Nations squad is picked in January.  The first three rounds of the URC have been of very uneven quality and have been noteworthy, from an Irish point of view, chiefly for how well the provinces has generally coped with a lot of academy and up-and-coming talent in their sides.  

Steven Kitshoff, Dave Ewers, Alex Nankivell, and Santiago Cordero have been the only high profile non-Irish qualified players recruited from abroad with Leinster relying entirely on their academy for new talent. With Duane Vermeulen, Rory Sutherland, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Sam Carter, Ben Healy, and Malakai Fekitoa all leaving, the Irish Provinces are increasingly relying on Irish qualified talent for their success. Kieran Marmion  (31) is the only high  profile Irish qualified player to have left the Irish system. 

David Humphries, announced as David Nucifora’s successor as the IRFU’s performance Director for next season will have a good template to work from, with lots of good new Irish qualified talent coming through and getting valuable first team experience. If he can find a few good new Irish props there is every reason to hope Ireland can remain near the top of the world rugby game.  

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