These different perspectives will become evident quickly during the Tournament and in particular for the Irish players. If, as I suspect, Farrell is selecting his teams with the objective of ensuring his continuing presence as Head Coach up to and beyond RWC 2023, we will see selections with a bias towards experience and proven defensive expertise. Experimental selections, targeted in part at giving younger players the opportunity to gain the experience which will be invaluable when we reach France in 2023, will be minimal and the primary objective will at all times be to select Squads which are capable of winning the greatest number of games in the forthcoming Tournament, even if some of the players are unlikely to be at their peak by the time we reach that competition.
Since the first week in December, the Irish provincial sides have been pitted against each other and some of the best European teams. Munster and Connacht in particular both acheived landmark away wins, in Clermont and Dublin respectively. Ulster and Connacht delivered promising, but unsuccesful, displays against major European opponents, and both could had scored wins with either greater experience or calmness among their decision makers. Leinster, despite acheiving the targeted two wins against their English and French opponents, displayed real signs of vulnerability against Connacht and again in an A interprovincial against Ulster, losing both games decisively.
Thus during the past six weeks since compiling the first Depth Chart for this 2020-21 Season, there have been many performances of note to advance or demote the claims of players seeking international selection.
The purpose of opening this piece by referring to the variables for selection in this Seasons Six-Nations competition is to provide context for the criteria for ranking in these lists. The Chart has been compiled solely on the basis of the author's perception of the relative ranking of the available players, based on their performances to date this Season. It is not compiled as a predictor of international selection this Season.
Criteria For 2020-21 Ranking Chart
The criteria for the 2020-21 rankings are the same as those previously used, viz:
1. Players may only be included once on the list
2. All players listed in positions in which they have played.
3. Players are listed at the highest level possible in a suitable position.
4. Listing is based on match (i.e. not training) performances from 1st January 2020 up till 15th January 2021.
5. Players listed as injured have been announced as "long-term" injuries by their Provinces.
Ireland XV Depth Chart - 15 January 2021
Squad Alpha - A & B Squad Delta C & D 15. H. Keenan Jimmy O'Brien* S Daly* M Lowry* 14. K Earls A Conway J Larmour A Woottam* 13. G Ringrose C Farrell J Hume* H Hyde* 12. R Henshaw B Aki S McCloskey T Daly* 11. J Lowe J Stockdale D Kearney A Sexton* 10. JCarty J Sexton B Burns R Byrne 9. K Marmion J G Park C Murray J Cooney 8. C Doris G Coombes* P Boyle* J Conan 7. P O'Mahony JVd Flyer Jaryd Butler* W Connors 6. R Ruddock CJ Stander D Leavy Josh Murphy* 5. Jas Ryan T Beirne U Dillane D. Toner 4. I Henderson Q Roux G Thornbury* F Wycherly* 3. A Porter J Ryan T O'Toole M Bent 2. R Herring R Kelleher S Cronin J Treacy 1. C Healy D Kilcoyne P Dooley* E O'Sullivan
* Uncapped player
Hugo Keenan is the foremost of three young players who have demonstrated specialist ability at full-back. Shane Daly might also be added to this group if he gets more opportunities in his favourite position. Keenan, although also selected at both National and Provincial level on the wing is already a consummate performer at full back and has shown the benefits of his Sevens experience, particularly in his counter-attacking ability, whether from the last line or operating as a second receiver.
Keith Earls remains our foremost attacking winger and finisher. Despite being at an age where many wingers show loss of acceleration or pace, he continues to perform to the highest standards and has an unerring ability to finish half-chances. Andy Conway has suffered an unfortunate run of playing luck and is certainly vulnerable to displacement by Jordan Larmour whose only performance since returning from injury demonstrated a welcome improvement in fielding high kicks, either following up or under bombardment.
James Lowe has proven that his try-scoring and broken play abilities can translate from Provincial to International level. His fielding and defensive abilities see him ranked above Jacob Stockdale but it is a toss-up between them, with Stockdale needing to re-focus his defensive efforts in particular to gain Squad selection.
Ringrose, Henshaw and Aki are without doubt the three centres who will vie for first-choice selection. Alongside them Chris Farrell has many admirers but despite his physical attributes his passing range limits his effectiveness at the very top level. The young Ulster duo of Hume and Hyde are fast developing and both have the physical attributes to graduate to the top level of the game without too much delay. Stuart McCloskey and his Connacht ‘twin’ big Tom Daly have both show the skill and muscularity which would probably earn them international caps elsewhere.
Jonny Sexton as Captain and previously World player of the year is a talisman of the Irish team. However, the years roll by and he has become injury prone to the extent that his best service to Ireland may be in becoming a 'closer out' of games. Jack Carty has earned his elevation to the top spot, although he needs to focus more on the ‘big moments’ at international level. Billy Burns and Ross Byrne have both played well in big games to hold off the younger challengers
Without doubt the position in which it was hardest to decide on the current pecking order. Conor Murray has re-discovered some of this best form but possibly not enough to put himself back to first choice. Park did not disappoint in his Autumn debut and Cooney looks to have rehabilitated himself over the past three months. Marmion, by the combination of his passing, breaks and tackling, grabs the top slot but there’s nothing between the four.
Cian Healy looks very close to the end of his reign as Ireland’s No 1. He stays at the top of the list because no other contender has put his hand high enough on the field. Kilcoyne could displace Healy in the next three months but this is Ireland’s weakest position at present.
The relative strength / weakness at hooker is all about the throwing ability of the contenders. Or rather the lack of this skill. Kelleher, Cronin, Treacy and Heffernan have all demonstrated their ball carrying and defensive prowess, but all lack the accuracy and nerve to consistently deliver the ball into the line-out in the manner required. A major Achilles heel of this Squad.
Tadgh Furlong’s continued absence rules him out of contention on this list and he is a major absence. Porter has carried the weight throughout the Autumn and has fought his way to the contenders for Lions Tour selection. John Ryan keeps Tom O’Toole in the queue and Michael Bent has demonstrated conclusively that some props have their best days in maturity.
James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Quinn Roux are now the clear contenders for selection in a starting team but Tadgh Beirne and Ultan Dillane have both shown in recent weeks that they offer less conventional strengths of huge value to their team. Thornbury, with height of the Toner variety, could yet become a viable international as will Tomas Ahern at some point in the future. Fineen Wycherly has developed into a top quality Provincial lock but may just lack the height to become an international selection.
The number of contenders for all three position in the back-row is even deeper than those at scrum-half. Peter O’Mahony has excelled in the number seven jersey with his line-out ability providing a unique skill ahead of his opponents. Rhys Ruddock has dominated the Leinster back-row performances throughout the season and shades CJ in claiming the No 6 jersey ahead of a host of others including Leavy, Murphy and Baird. Josh v der Flyer, Dan Leavy, Jarryd Butler, Will Connors, Ryan Baird and even Scott Penny are viable contenders for the No 7 shirt, who will compete to change these rankings in the coming months
CJ lost his claim to the No 8 shirt to Caelan Doris who, with a series of excellent performances in the Autumn internationals just like Hugo Keenan, has shown taken that this level of the game holds no fears for him. Gavin Coombes and Paul Boyle have both shown at provincial level that they are live contenders for international selection and Jack Conan will have to show full rehabilitation from injury to get back into the spotlight.
We have only outlined the first four ranks of our Depth Chart in this post but we will post ranks 5th to 8th and also the Under 24 Squad X (players born after 1st January 1996, the next generation) in the coming week