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The Ireland team that should face South Africa in the first test at Loftus

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Wednesday May 29, 2024

As the club rugby season enters its home stretch for the 2023/24 season, the small matter of the summer test series comes firmly into focus.

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Following a titanic Investec Champions Cup final, Leinster Rugby came up just short for a third season running against a simply sublime Toulouse side. A Leinster-centric Irish side will get ready to dive south for the biggest challenge in world rugby as they get set to tackle the World Champion Springboks in their own backyard for the first time since 2016.

For Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, the disappointment in seeing several of his key players come up just short once again will be something that needs to be addressed. Whilst the BKT URC still has one regular season round followed by the knockout series remaining, Leinster’s loss on the big stage has brought up questions once again about their ability to win when it really matters.

Although this image may be somewhat overblown given this is an Irish side who claimed back-to-back Six Nations titles to go along with their comprehensive series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand. However, these achievements are tainted by many due to their narrow quarterfinal loss to New Zealand and a last-second loss to England at Twickenham.

Irrespective of these results, the upcoming series will undoubtedly be full of tension, given the tight nature of the head-to-head series between the two nations over the past decade.

15. Jimmy O’Brien – Leinster
No, Hugo Keenan, no problem?… Well, not exactly, given Keenan’s elevation to being one of the very best fullbacks in the game. Alas, with Keenan dipping his toe back into the world of 7s with a view to winning an Olympic medal, there is now a glaring gap that needs filling in the 15 shirt. Cue the ultra-versatile and exceptionally talented O’Brien, who has a real chance to create some competition for Keenan. Whilst Ciaran Frawley is also an option here, Ireland will need the out-and-out pace of O’Brien to match the exceptional South African outside backs of Cheslin Kolbe, Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse and co.

14. Calvin Nash – Munster
One of the finds of the Six Nations, Nash was in superb try-scoring form, and his departure early in the match against England cost Ireland dearly. Parlaying his international form back into the club game, Nash has been sublime for Munster. Alongside O’Brien, Nash brings exceptional pace and top-level ability in the air to counter the Springboks’ aerial game.

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13. Garry Ringrose – Leinster
You only realise how much you miss someone when they’re gone, as Leinster found out with Ringrose on the sideline for the Champions Cup final. Whilst Robbie Henshaw and Jamie Osborne were both very good, neither are natural 13s, and Ringrose should slot right back into his rightful spot in the midfield.

12. Robbie Henshaw – Leinster
He is just edging his good pal Bundee Aki for the starting role on account of his exceptional late form (And the fact that Connacht will not have played for quite some time). Henshaw returning to his favoured inside centre berth will give Ireland a solid front foot-ball-generating machine.

11. James Lowe – Leinster
A bizarrely tight call with Munster’s Shane Daly for us, who has been exceptional so far this season. Lowe’s big-game experience edges this for us, as does his physicality going forward. One concern will be the return of his desire to ‘bite in’ when defending, which has cost both Ireland and Leinster a lot of time. When on form, Lowe is a magnificent attacking player, but the defensive issues are concerning.

10. Jack Crowley – Munster
The debate has been firmly settled in 2024; Jack Crowley is head and shoulders Ireland’s best flyhalf. Whilst it would be unfair to pin Leinster’s struggles on Ross Byrne, his lack of attacking threat was ruthlessly exposed in the Champions Cup final. On several occasions, the Toulouse defence slipped and drifted off Byrne, knowing a break was unlikely. This, coupled with the lack of distance on his kicking game, which also cost Leinster, means that he does not make the cut for our squad.

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9. Jamison Gibson-Park – Leinster
Currently having the season of his life, Gibson-Park is absolutely critical to the way Ireland currently plays. His ability to dictate the tempo of both Leinster and Ireland’s attack is crucial. The fact that he did not have his best game in the Champions Cup final was exclusively down to the disruption Toulouse caused to the Leinster rucking game. This is an area both the Boks and Ireland will be aware of and will be an interesting subplot to follow.

8. Caelen Doris (C) – Leinster
A new skipper for a new era, whilst the iconic Peter O’Mahony remains available and will be a key member of our squad, Doris is the man to lead Ireland forward. Outside of his costly concession of a penalty late on against Toulouse, Doris was utterly magnificent and, in conjunction with Henshaw, was Leinster’s only real option to break the gainline. His versatility offers Farrell and co several possibilities on the bench and this will be key against a potent Bok pack.

7. Peter O’Mahony – Munster
Starting the match, the always niggly and street-smart O’Mahony will be key to Ireland staying in the fight against what will be an onslaught from the off at Loftus Versfeld. Signing a one-year extension would indicate that this is POM’s last tour, but given the condition he keeps himself in, could he be a key leader ala Duane Vermeulen for Ireland over the next three years? Irrespective of his long-term future, Ireland needs his line-out ability and belligerent mentality to match the Boks for the opening 50-odd minutes.

6. Thomas Ahern – Munster
The bolter in our squad is ahead of the equally dynamic Ryan Baird. Whilst there is no doubt this will have Leinster fans up in arms, Ahern’s ability simply cannot be denied. Like Baird, he is capable of bursting through tackles for a big run but looks far more comfortable when it comes to either finishing these runs or finding support than the Leinster player. Throw into the mix that he is 6’10” and a shade under 120kg and one gets just why he is so effective at set piece time.

5. Tadhg Beirne – Munster
One of the guaranteed starters in our team, Beirne is simply world-class and will be Ireland’s chief turnover threat in South Africa. His dynamism around the park plays into Ireland’s up-tempo game, and the addition of Joe McCarthy in the pack has freed him up to excel at his biggest strength as an open-field attacking threat.

4. Joe McCarthy – Leinster
Another big-time Six Nations contributor, Big Joe, is the real deal. He was one of the Leinster players in the final who firmly got on top of his opposite number. With a similar mentality to the great Bakkies Botha, McCarthy is a menace around the park and brings a real hard edge to the Irish pack. Throwing in his outlandish strength and presence is non-negotiable for Farrell’s team.

3. Tadhg Furlong – Leinster
Back to his very best, Furlong was a key part of Leinster’s scrum domination of Toulouse in the final. Looking back a bit further, his physicality in the quarterfinal against La Rochelle was off the charts as he dumped big Will Skelton on several occasions.

2. Dan Sheehan – Leinster
His potential match-up with Malcolm Marx (if Marx is fit) will be worth the admission ticket alone. Coming within a meter of a long-range try against Toulouse after streaking away from all but Blair Kinghorn, Sheehan is quite possibly the most dynamic player Ireland has ever had in the hooker position (Keith Wood might argue otherwise!). One area of concern is the inconsistency of both the Leinster and Irish lineout, but we are not qualified (or brave) enough to pin the blame on Sheehan.

1. Andrew Porter – Leinster
Arguably the most important player in Ireland’s starting line-up, given the gulf in quality between him and the next option, Porter is a world-class operator. Outside of getting on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes in the World Cup quarterfinal, Porter has been exceptional whenever he has pulled on the green shirt. Alongside Sheehan and Furlong, his obliteration of the Toulouse scrum was a sweet sight for every scrum aficionado

REPLACEMENTS:

16. Ronan Kelleher
The 1B to Sheehan’s 1A, Kelleher, is good enough to start for just about any international team in the world. Holding the edge over Sheehan at set piece by all accounts, Kelleher is the perfect impact sub to counter the bomb squad.

17. Jeremey Loughman
The 28-year-old Munster loosehead is playing some really good rugby for his province of late and, given Cian Healy’s age profile, will have an opportunity to prove why he should be the Robin to Porter’s batman.

18. Oli Jager
One of the more exciting prospects in the squad, the former Crusaders standout came back home to Ireland for tests like these. An absolute giant of a man, the 28-year-old is a scrum connoisseur by all accounts which is something that will be a necessity against a country that values the set piece like no other.

19. James Ryan
Once spoken about as a future Ireland captain, Ryan is at a crossroads after seeing his provincial teammate McCarthy leapfrog him this season. Still just 27-years-old, Ryan is just now hitting his prime years and remains a key leader for the men in green. Expect him to get back to his best this summer and push towards regaining his place in the starting XV.

20. Jack Conan
Like Kelleher, the British and Irish Lion would be a starter in most teams around the world. Yet the impact he brings from the bench, coupled with the immovable object that is Caelen Doris, sees him once again on the bench. The 31-year-old’s ability to play six or eight brings versatility to Ireland’s bench, which will give Ireland some much-needed flexibility.

21. Josh van der Flier – Leinster
It might be getting lost in the malaise of another Champions Cup loss, but the backrow is back to his World Player Of The Year best. His dynamism makes him perfect as an impact option from the bench when the Boks look to bring on a second wave of giant forwards.

22. Craig Casey
Now is the time for Casey to finally take the step just about everyone within Munster beliefs he can. The 25-year-old has flashed moments of brilliance over the years but now seems to be hitting consistent form for Munster. His ability to operate as a threat around the ruck with his sniping, running, and passing ability will ensure that Ireland doesn’t miss a beat when he replaces JGP.

23. Ciaran Frawley
The man who makes the 6 – 2 possible, Frawley was exceptional despite a distinct lack of game time ahead of the Champions Cup final. Replacing Ross Byrne, Frawley brought a running threat to the Leinster attack, stood up to take the match-tying penalty and came within a yard of landing the winning drop goal. Now 26 years old, it is time for Frawley to take the reigns as Leinster’s next flyhalf, but his versatility for the upcoming tour will be a crucial weapon.

Squad players:
Tom Stewart (Ulster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Tom O’Toole (Ulster), Eric O’Sullivan (Ulster), Niall Murray (Connacht), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Gavin Coombes (Munster), Cormac Izuchukwu (Ulster), Cian Prendergast (Connacht), John Hodnett (Munster), Nathan Doak (Ulster), Sam Prendergast (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Jamie Osborne (Leinster), Shane Daly (Munster), Ethan McIlroy (Ulster), Rob Russell (Leinster)

Watch the exclusive reveal-all episode of Walk the Talk with Ardie Savea as he chats to Jim Hamilton about the RWC 2023 experience, life in Japan, playing for the All Blacks and what the future holds. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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