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15th Aug 2023

12 Irish players from down through the years that you just have to love

Patrick McCarry

Irish rugby

Two stars of the future included.

Most of us that follow Irish rugby closely, or even tune in and out for the big games and Test matches, will have players we have a soft spot for. Someone that provides an extra edge, has an intriguing personality or something in them that we recognise within ourselves.

Growing up, while many here would have loved Simon Geoghegan, Anthony Foley, Nick Popplewell or Keith Wood, my favourite was Jim Staples, the Harlequins and Ireland fullback.

There was nothing overly flash about Staples but he could do damage if he had a bit of open country ahead of him, as evidenced against the All Blacks here in 1992:

Irish rugby blessed with massive talent in this century

The next generation, the first batch of players breaking through after the game turned professional, included Brian O’Driscoll and he was just about everyone’s favourite for a batch of years, especially after his famous hat-trick against France and Lions try against Australia, a year later.

The likes of Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris would capture the imagination over the next decade, with many more vying for the affections of fans. Before I fully made the switch to covering sport, Rocky Elsom held my [rugby] heart after that stunning season with Leinster.

I came to SportsJOE when we started up in 2014 and, with the World Cup on the horizon, and all the players there waiting to catch the eye, I thought it would be nice to go back over my near decade here and select the players that caught my eye, and what makes them special.

This is a very personal list, and you’ll recognise many of the players mentioned [and even a trend or two] but I have added in the two most recent players to have grabbed my attention, and who I enjoy watching play the game. Going in chronological order, from my time starting here, we have…

12 of our favourite Irish players from the past decade

JARED PAYNE (Ulster, Ireland & Lions)

Irish rugbyJared Payne of Ireland, pictured in 2016. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

A gem of a player. Arrived over at Ulster, from New Zealand, in 2011 and almost immediately copped an Achilles injury that detonated his season. Returned in 2012 and looked a class apart. Joe Schmidt couldn’t wait to get him in an Ireland jersey and he was the backline marshal for the 2015 Six Nations triumph. If you ever want to recall how good he was – concussion forced an early retirement in 2017 – check out his performance in the Soldier Field victory over the All Blacks.

JOSH VAN DER FLIER (Leinster & Ireland)

Burst onto the scene, drifted back into the pack then dug back into his game and made himself the best player in world rugby. Was always a tempo setter for the Leinster and Ireland defensive line, but looked around at teammates and absorbed their best qualities to add turnovers, improved ball-carrying and more tries to his game. As humble and likeable as they come, just surprising he is not a British & Irish Lion yet.

JOEY CARBERY (Leinster, Munster & Ireland)

Irish rugbyJoey Carbery, pictured in 2018. (Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile)

A player that you know had something special as soon as you saw him play. A lad that played the game as it broke around him and had this supreme confidence in himself. Still feel he would have been better staying with Leinster as a fullback, but pushing him to 10 and, eventually, Munster was all part of the Johnny Sexton succession planning, which is now seven years on the simmer. Munster have Jack Crowley and Mike Haley as solid 10 and 15 options now, so you wonder where Carbery goes from next season. Still only 27, so keeping some stock in him.

GARRY RINGROSE (Leinster & Ireland)

Compared to Brian O’Driscoll from a very young age, although he was not the first to bear that burden, Ringrose was a player who’s time was always going to come. Leinster used him on the wing, early on, but he was always going to be their No.13. Has developed his defensive game and is a real backline leader now, but still pops up with the odd wonder try. Has that vital role for Ireland of being the man to shoot into the offensive line and cause as much chaos as he can. Another ‘X Files’ case, regarding his non selection for the Lions.

JACOB STOCKDALE (Ulster & Ireland)

Irish rugby

Very much like James Ryan, in that you saw this guy as a young player and immediately knew he would be a Test level player, and a very good one at that. Exploded onto the scene and everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Seasoned pros would shake their heads in wonder as another chip through bounced up in his bread basket or a risky move would somehow pay off. Scored 20 tries in one season, including a record Six Nations haul, and looked on course to smash all records. Rounded out 2018 by stunning the All Blacks then the steady decline – that chipping away due to injuries and confidence. 27, like Carbery, and still with so much potential, it’s hard to say whether he will ever reach such heights as his first two years in that Ireland set-up.

TADHG BEIRNE (Leinster, Scarlets, Munster, Ireland & Lions)

I must admit, Beirne only really grabbed my attention mid-way through that remarkable season he had with Scarlets. Told there was no future for him at Leinster, after some bad luck with injuries, Beirne was considering packing it all in until and agent put his name out there and the Welsh side rolled the dice. He had a remarkable 2016/17 season as Scarlets won the PRO12, then headed back to Ireland and made a home at Munster. Hard not to love this guy when you see him play. Gets stuck in to al, the deep and dirty places. The best thing about his sustained form is that teams know he’s coming for that ball, and still can’t stop him.

WILL ADDISON (Sale Sharks, Ulster & Ireland)

Irish rugby

The very definition of a player that you have a soft spot for. Possesses that quality to just put an extra few kph on a pass, delay the final ball a tick or hold a run until the right moment. Able to play across the backline and a silky player that can unlock defences. Looked to be a Swiss Army knife player for Ulster, and Ireland too, when he arrived in 2018. Played 22 times in his opening two seasons in Ireland then injuries hit him, badly. Has only played eight times in the past three seasons. Aged 30 now and signed up for another season with Ulster, you feel he is entering into make or break territory. We’ll always have that 2018/19 season, though!

MAX DEEGAN (Leinster & Ireland)

26 now and nearing 100 caps for Leinster, with whom he has enjoyed league success with, and two Ireland caps to his name… but. Was named player of the tournament for the 2016 World Rugby Under 20 Championship, and looked, for all money, to be a big Test star of the future. While James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and Hugo Keenan all kicked on, Deegan has not blown the lights out. Still a fine player to watch but I’ve almost been as frustrated as I’m sure he has been about that inability to burst through, while the likes of Caelan Doris and even Cian Prendergast and Gavin Coombes have overtaken him.

RYAN BAIRD (Leinster & Ireland)

Irish rugbyRyan Baird of Ireland, pictured in 2023. (Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile)

Anyone making their senior debuts for the provinces at 18 or 19 is one you can tell the coaches rate to be a top player. Baird had that honour, back in 2019, then caught the eye – playing lock and blindside flanker – for Ireland U20s. Was not long 20 when he played his first Champions Cup game. It was only a matter of time before he played for Ireland, multiple, multiple times, but Andy Farrell & Co. eased him into it. Capable of some incredible line breaks and tries, as well as getting through a mountain of work. May well switch to blindside, in place of Peter O’Mahony, after this World Cup. Just don’t tell Pete!

CIAN PRENDERGAST (Connacht & Ireland)

Another player that was deemed not good enough for Leinster, but who has proven otherwise at a different club. The moment Leinster let the Kildare native know there would be no academy place for him, Connacht were on the blower and sorting a spot for him to live in Galway. Played Racing 92, in Paris, at the age of 20 in just his third game as a pro. Can play in each of the back row spots and is an all-action character, as fond as an offload as he is a clear-out. Will be interesting to see where his rugby future lies in 2025, when that Connacht contract expires. If he keeps on at the pace he is going, he should have 20-odd Ireland caps by then.

JOHN HODNETT (Munster & Ireland U20)

Irish rugbyMan of the match John Hodnett of Munster is interviewed after the URC Final. (Photo by Nic Bothma/Sportsfile)

Wild to think it was four years ago when I first noted and underlined his name. An absolute menace for the Ireland U20s and the type of forward that Munster fans absolutely adore – a lot of bark, and a lot of bite! Was flying it for Munster until an Achilles injury ruined his 2021/22 season. All of a sudden, the back slaps and predictions can go away, especially when other young players emerge. Hodnett had to grind his way back and was only offered a season-long contract at Munster, last season. He needed to prove himself all over again. He did just that – 17 appearances, three tries, the best tackle success rate in the URC and a straight-up demon in the semi-final win over Leinster, and the final triumph over Stormers. Was surprised he was not even called into Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad for a look, but his time will come.

BRIAN GLEESON (Munster & Ireland U20)

Had caught the eye in the Six Nations, earlier this year, then went off the charts in the World Rugby Under 20 Championship. Already looks ready to play senior level, and cause a heap of headaches. Simon Zebo recently told us Gleeson just skittles lads and plunders breakdown ball like he was back knocking about at Rockwell College, rather than mixing it with the senior squad of the URC champions. A tidy hurler at underage, he has those talismanic hallmarks and is in good company to progress down at Munster. One I’ll be watching closely.

Notable mentions, too, to Charlie Butterworth (still don’t know why he didn’t go big), Chris Farrell, CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong and Shane Daly.

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