Having canvassed the thoughts of Gordon D’Arcy today on the Leinster and Ireland setups at present, it got our minds thinking as to what we may see across the Ireland midfield coming into the November internationals.
It’s a four-season Test series this autumn with Ireland heading to Chicago for clash one, before meeting Canada, New Zealand again, and then finally Australia.
Since the departure of Brian O’Driscoll and D’Arcy as the nailed down 12-13 combination there has been an expected jostling for position in the centre, with a whole host of combinations being drafted in.
The one that has stuck, and that Joe Schmidt has favoured most, is Robbie Henshaw at 12 and Jared Payne at 13; it combines raw power in Henshaw and nous in the man outside him in Payne. But with Henshaw ruled out with injury until November or December, we could see other options being explored, which could be no harm in terms of seeing who is the best option going towards Rugby World Cup 2019.
The incumbants: Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding
The Ulster pairing of Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding are the incumbents in the two jerseys from Test three against South Africa in the summer just gone. Henshaw’s injury gave the Ulster duo the chance to combine, having both started a Test each inside Henshaw prior to that.
Marshall took the chance to slot in at 13 exceptionally well, looking good with ball in hand as well as defensively decent; Olding just inside him has been built up to beat the band over the last number of years as the most creative option at Ireland’s disposal.
The old hand: Jared Payne
The previous pairing also allows for Jared Payne to be included at his best position at 15, cutting into the line, and almost acting as a third attacker on front-foot ball. That said, Schmidt is a man of consistency and he may feel Payne’s steady hand is too important in his midfield in order to deploy his fellow Kiwi at 15.
Indeed, having Payne start at 13, means Schmidt can also include one of Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo or Tiernan O’Halloran as the sweeper, which likens the odds of Payne being retained at outside centre.
The bulldozer: Stuart McCloskey
The fourth option at Ulster is Stuart McCloskey. The battering ram is the man in possession of the Ulster No 12 shirt and gave a hugely promising debut against England in the last Six Nations; he offers a physical directness that no other player in the Ireland setup does. He’s also a baller though and adds touches of finesse that few other men of his size can.
What benefits McCloskey’s selection cause is that he is a great foil to all of Olding, Marshall and Payne and could play well inside all three of them. If Schmidt wants power, McCloskey will be in the side, with possibly Payne for security outside him, and Kearney at fullback.
The long-term option: Garry Ringrose
At Leinster, Garry Ringrose is the man the public want to see get his chance at 13. Since bursting onto the scene last season, he has looked like the best 13 option in the long term. Like McCloskey he has size added to skill and has been praised across the board, most notably by the man he aims to replace – Brian O’Driscoll.
He’s started the season well for Leinster and Schmidt has explicitly stated he is monitoring his progress. In truth this November could yet again be too early to break into the Ireland first team. At 21-years-old he’s still incredibly young and starting games against the All Blacks is a remote possibility, but a start against Canada, and also possibly game time against the Wallabies doesn’t seem beyond possibility.
The out-half debate
The other key area of the midfield discussion is how to balance the options at No 10 for the duration of the four games. Jonny Sexton obviously holds all the cards, but Paddy Jackson put together three supremely solid games for Ireland in South Africa and surely merits a start against New Zealand or Australia.
The word around the campfire is that Ian Madigan's exodus to Bordeaux will rule him out of selection contention, we'll see how that pans out come November, particularly if Sexton or Jackson pick up a knock.
The other call relates to Joey Carberry. Although he’s just burst onto the scene this season, if he continues to play in his current manner then he also will be knocking on the door for game time versus the Canadians, in what should really be a selection that develops a B team and potential options for the first XV.
What is worth noting is that the age range of these players: Carberry is 20, Ringrose is 21, Henshaw is 23, Olding is 23, Jackson is 24, McCloskey is 24, Mashall is 25, Payne is 30 and Sexton is 31. Add to that the eligibility of 26-year-old Bundee Aki for the Ireland setup come autumn 2017 and come the next World Cup there is going to be an incredible wealth of options from 10-13, which would make even the most calculated cynic mildly optimistic.