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11th Mar 2018

Combined XV: Ireland’s 2018 Six Nations champions v 2009 Grand Slam winners

Jack O'Toole

Ireland won their third Six Nations title in the last five years on Saturday after a bonus point win over Scotland – and a French win over England – handed Joe Schmidt’s side the 2018 championship.

Ireland will now head to Twickenham next weekend for the final round of the tournament where they will contend for their first Grand Slam since 2009.

England and Wales derailed Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes in both 2014 and 2015, and Joe Schmidt and his players refused to get too carried away with talks of a Grand Slam after the Scotland game as they tried their best to keep a lid on ever rising expectations.

However, the New Zealander did draw some comparisons between the 2009 and 2018 teams while Johnny Sexton highlighted the role of Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara in helping the younger players develop during that time and helping accelerate Ireland’s rise from a side that used to win Triple Crowns under Eddie O’Sullivan to a side that wins three Six Nations titles every five years under Schmidt.

With Ireland now just one win away from a Grand Slam, and just over a year removed from toppling the All Blacks, it’s worth comparing Schmidt’s current side with Declan Kidney’s lionised team.

[2018 Ireland team v Scotland : 2009 Ireland team v Wales]

Full-back – Rob Kearney v Rob Kearney

One of only two surviving members alongside Rory Best from the 2009 team that defeated Wales, Kearney was sensational against Scotland on Saturday and put in his finest performance in an Ireland jersey since the 2016 win over New Zealand in Chicago.

Kearney has been repeatedly hampered by injuries over the last few years, while he has had his place in the starting XV routinely questioned, but against Scotland, he was back to his best and ran with pace and vigour.

Kearney was arguably a better player in 2009, but with Saturday’s win over Scotland in mind, we’ll give 31-year-old Rob Kearney the nod over his 22-year-old former self.

Verdict: Rob Kearney

Right-wing – Keith Earls v Tommy Bowe

Earls has been sensational since his return from a hamstring injury before Christmas but he had a rare off day on Saturday as he made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. The Munster winger has been one of the key players in Ireland’s 2018 Six Nations winning side but….. well….. I’ll let Ryle Nugent take this one.

Verdict: Tommy Bowe

Outside Centre – Brian O’Driscoll v The Closest Player to Brian O’Driscoll since Brian O’Driscoll (Garry Ringrose)

Ringrose was brilliant against Scotland and showed no signs of rustiness as he put in a man of the match performance even if Kearney claimed that particular honour on the day. His open field running and his passing in the build up to Jacob Stockdale’s second try caused the Scottish defence huge problems but Brian O’Driscoll was the 2009 player of the tournament in the year they won the Grand Slam. O’Driscoll is the unquestioned choice here.

Verdict: Brian O’Driscoll

12. Gordon D’Arcy v Bundee Aki

D’Arcy was not quite the same force he was in 2004 when he was nominated for the World Player of the Year award but he was still among the most reliable options in Europe by 2009. He had such a great understanding with O’Driscoll and fly-half Ronan O’Gara and scored the decisive late try that handed Ireland a critical win over France in Croke Park.

Bundee Aki has been a great addition to the Irish squad but he hasn’t yet been the devastating force that many may have expected him to be.

In his defence, he’s had a new centre partner in three out of four games, but D’Arcy nudges him here.

Verdict: Gordon D’Arcy

11. Left Wing – Jacob Stockdale v Luke Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald was a great player for Ireland and was unlucky not to have played in an era where Brian O’Driscoll was not the undoubted choice at outside centre, but even at the peak of his powers, he would not get into this current Irish side.

There was a lot more nuance to Fitzgerald’s game than scoring tries; he was an excellent defender and he had a great understanding of the game, but Jacob Stockdale has now scored six tries in four Six Nations games, whereas Fitzgerald notched just two tries against Italy in 2009. Hard to make a case for Fitzgerald even if Stockdale has looked shaky defensively.

Verdict: Jacob Stockdale

10. Fly-half – Ronan O’Gara v Johnny Sexton

This is the great Irish Rugby argument: Sexton v O’Gara. This comparison has been made so many times and it invariably always hits the same notes.

Sexton is a better playmaker, a better runner with ball in hand and a much better defender than O’Gara ever was, but the Munster fly-half was a better goal kicker and was arguably the best tactical kicker in world rugby during his prime.

You can go to great lengths to analyse both player’s strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately, time will decide this specific example.

O’Gara’s match winning drop goal against Wales was iconic because it had ended a historic drought for Irish Rugby, but Sexton’s effort against France was the more impressive effort.

Sexton was also crucial in the build up to the drop goal against France, picking out Keith Earls with a brilliant cross kick, but he also put in a man of the match performance against Wales and was once again a key player in the win over Scotland.

Verdict: Johnny Sexton

9. Conor Murray v Tomas O’Leary

With all due respect to Tomas O’Leary, it’s not even close here. Conor Murray is the best scrum-half in world rugby. O’Leary simply never reached those heights.

Verdict: Conor Murray

8. Jamie Heaslip v CJ Stander

Another interesting matchup but the advantage has to go to Heaslip. The Leinster number eight scored one of the tries of the tournament against France and he was a world player of the year nominee by the end of the 2009 season.

Stander has performed consistently for Ireland since making his debut in 2016 but he’s not the same force as he was when he first broke into the Irish team as opposition defences have figured out ways to nullify his ball carrying ability.

The South African finished the Scotland game with a string of strong carries but Heaslip was at the peak of his powers in 2009.

Verdict: Jamie Heaslip

7. David Wallace v Dan Leavy

Leavy has been exceptional in his last two games and was immense at the breakdown in the win over Scotland. The 24-year-old Leinster flanker started the season as the third choice openside behind Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, but injuries to the aforementioned created an opportunity that he has fully taken advantage of.

Having said that, David Wallace was one of the best players in that 2009 team. David Wallace was generally one of the best players in any Irish team he played for. He was generally one of the best in any team he ever played for in professional rugby and his ball carrying gives him the edge over Leavy here.

Verdict: David Wallace

6. Peter O’Mahony v Stephen Ferris

O’Mahony or Ferris is probably one of the more underrated arguments. Both players were great during their respective tournaments and you can make credible cases for both, however, Ferris’ superiority as a ball carrier probably edges it for him here. O’Mahony is a better line-out jumper than Ferris was but the Ulster backrower was a powerhouse in one of the best backrows Ireland have ever had.

5. Paul O’Connell v Devin Toner

Paul O’Connell or Devin Toner…… Paul O’Connell or Devin Ton….. Paul O’Connell or Dev…. Paul O’Connell.

Verdict: Paul O’Connell

4. Donncha O’Callaghan v James Ryan

It is actually quite jarring when you think that 21-year-old James Ryan, in his first Six Nations campaign, could already be better than Donncha O’Callaghan ever was.

Donncha O’Callaghan was capped 94 times by Ireland and was a two-time British & Irish Lion, but Ryan was so unbelievably dominant against both France and Scotland and could be the best athlete Ireland have ever had in the position.

It sounds like a gigantic leap to make but Ryan is impacting games in ways O’Callaghan simply never did with his offloading ability a major point of difference between the two.

The Leinster second-row has topped the Irish forwards twice in tackles made, once in carries and finished second behind CJ Stander in carries made in the win over France. He’s a phenomenal player and a man that already looks like breaching the world class bracket.

Verdict: James Ryan

3. Tadhg Furlong  v John Hayes

John Hayes was a stalwart for Ireland for so long but on his best day he’d struggle to live with Tadhg Furlong. The Wexford born prop has improved with each passing season since making his international debut before the 2015 Rugby World Cup and he has been able to show an impressive array of ball skills this year as he continues to grow and find his groove in this Ireland squad.

Verdict: Tadhg Furlong

2. Rory Best v Jerry Flannery

Flannery started ahead of Best in the 2009 decider against Wales so there is sense in picking him again here, but Best has improved since then and is playing some of the best rugby of his career in his mid-thirties. His line-out throwing was suspect at times against Scotland, but his all-round game and leadership give him the edge here but it really is a pick em’.

Verdict: Rory Best

1. Cian Healy v Marcus Horan

Before this season you could have talked me into Marcus Horan here but Healy has been getting very close to getting back to where he was when he was selected on the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour of Australia.

I don’t quite know if he’ll ever get back to the level he was at at the start of this decade when he was the best loosehead prop in the world, but he’s been excellent this season and rounds out the front row here.

Verdict: Cian Healy

Combined team (*2018 players are bolded)

15. Rob Kearney

14. Tommy Bowe

13. Brian O’Driscoll

12. Gordon D’Arcy

11. Jacob Stockdale

10. Johnny Sexton

9. Conor Murray

8. Jamie Heaslip

7. David Wallace

6. Stephen Ferris

5. Paul O’Connell

4. James Ryan

3. Tadhg Furlong

2. Rory Best

  1. Cian Healy

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