No matter what sport it is, I'm a big believer in having at least two strong options for each position.
So I'm going to go around the Irish teams and see where the strength is, who needs to improve and where we need strengthening.
1. Loosehead prop.
The first position here has two full internationals of serious note. Cian Healy and Heinke van der Merwe are not only two of the best loosehead props in the Northern Hemisphere, but the combination of the two of them of the bench really brings the best out of each of them. Especially Healy, who is learning a lot from van der Merwe. Healy knows he can play as hard as he can for 60 minutes and he'll be replaced. Whereas when van der Merwe is not on the bench Healy feels he needs to last the game, and isn't as effective as he tries to conserve energy.
Jack McGrath is also on the horizon, and looks a decent prospect. He will need to start improving soon and challenge van der Merwe. With the IRFU foreign player policy coming in soon, it's unlikely van der Merwe will be around much longer.
Another position that Leinster are blessed in. Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin are very much like Healy and van der Merwe. They both bring different attributes to the party too. Strauss acts like an extra openside, bringing a vital instinct to the team that both Leinster and Ireland do not have enough of.
Both need to improve the line-out throwing and scrummaging, but it's promising times.
There doesn't seem to be an outstanding candidate as a youthful backup. I don't rate Aaron Dundon (late twenties anyway). It reminds to be seen if either of those Byrne twins from Clongowes last year are worth all the fuss.
3. Tighthead Prop.
Mike Ross has this position sewn up. I thought after Bent's Taranaki performances and cameo's for Ireland that he was the real deal scrummaging-wise. But he seems to be caught out at Pro 12 level, which is extremely worrying.
This is a position where Bent needs to improve his scrummaging immeasurably. Because even though he brings nothing else to the table, a tighthead doesn't have to.
In the ranks are Jamie Hagan, who appears to be flattering to deceive and looks like he will never be more than a Pro 12 player. Martin Moore is another youngster coming through, but I don't want to get my hopes up.
4 & 5. Second Row.
Leo is still the main second row for the Heineken Cup champions. Unfortunately is appears that Devin Toner will never make the step up from Pro 12 player to effective Heineken Cup second row.
Damien Browne seems like a workhorse, and effective Pro 12, and occasionally Heineken Cup pool player. But he's very limited without embarrassing himself.
Quinn Roux seems to be the real deal, based on the South African newspapers and websites. He is highly rated back in his home country, and was initially rated higher than Eben Etzebeth when the two were emerging just a year ago before injuries scuppered his Super Rugby season last year. Roux was included in Meyer's extended training camps in the season before he left, and there was a general expectation in South Africa that he would have made the team in a year or two's time. I've also seen a few articles from around the time of the announcement suggesting that Roux will go back to South Africa at the end of the year, which hopefully won't happen, but if so that means the signing of McCarthy for next season makes a lot more sense.
Quinn Roux Link 1
Quinn Roux Link 2
Tom Denton is a young English born, Irish qualified second row. He seems decent, was highly rated in England, so he might have a chance. I haven't seen anything special from the few viewings I've had of him, but I would like to see more.
Ben Marshall is the academy player coming through. He has been quite impressive at blindside when appearing, and seemed impressive when appearing for the U-20's a few years ago.
I don't know enough about Mark Flanagan to comment.
To me, Roux is the big hope, and hopefully Denton and Marshall can step up, but none of them seem good enough at the moment. They are all young though, so here's hoping.
6. Blindside Flanker.
In my eyes, there is a back-row spot up for grabs. Only Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip are guaranteed first XV spots in my eyes.
Sean O'Brien is the best blindside in the squad. He isn't a natural openside, but he's also the best openside in the squad.
Kevin McLaughlin seems to be next in the pecking order, but I'm a huge fan of Rhys Ruddock, and would love to see him nail the other guaranteed spot. He needs to improve his ball-carrying, breakdown work and line-out abilities but he is coming along nicely.
Jordi Murphy is coming up from the academy and is making huge strides, which will hopefully push Ruddock. Blindside is not a position to worry about.
7. Openside Flanker.
A position that needs a bit of development, but I have some theories about the future of opensides to come in a later blog post.
Again, Sean O'Brien is the best openside available, but it negates the devastating ball carrying abilities that he possesses, so it'd not ideal for him to play here. I also think Heaslip, Healy and Strauss as well as D'Arcy and O'Driscoll display a lot of good fetching work one would associate as a primary role of an openside flanker.
Shane Jennings has been in great form this season, but I wouldn't consider him international class, he barely passes at Heineken Cup level.
Dominic Ryan seems to be the next best thing, and he needs a year without injury. Along with Ruddock, I think he has a great chance of cementing his place in the team. I do think he might be more of a 6 though.
Jamie Heaslip is still world class. He may not be in as good form as 2009, but he is still one of the top 5 best no. 8's in the world with Read, Harinordoqouy and Parisse.
Leo Auva'a seems like a big ball carrying 8 too, he seems a bit one-dimensional, and should try and incorporate more sense and work ethic into his game. He's only young so there is time too.
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