The sorry statistic of possibly Ireland's greatest ever back row 1 year ago

The sorry statistic of possibly Ireland's greatest ever back row

They have to be right up there.

Ahead of the 2015 World Cup, SportsJOE ran a series of polls for the greatest Ireland XV of the professional era.

Stephen Ferris ran away with the blindside vote, Jamie Heaslip pipped Anthony Foley and Sean O'Brien just lost out to David Wallace.

Those three men were the starting blindside, openside and No.8 of Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam team and they were held in great affection.

Two and a half years on and Sean O'Brien has only added to his bullocking, barn-storming legend.

He came back from a bad shoulder injury to star for Leinster and Ireland again and was starting openside for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand. One suspects that openside vote would be closer today but the accomplishments and contributions of Wallace to Irish rugby must never be forgotten.

On Monday, Heaslip followed Wallace and Ferris down that well-worn path to rugby retirement. It left Rob Kearney and Rory Best as the only two Grand Slam winners to remain involved in the current Irish set-up.

O'Brien was involved in the November internationals but may yet miss out on the entire Six Nations after Leinster confirmed he was not likely to feature against Scarlets in Guinness PRO14 action this weekend.

The retirement of Heaslip let to both Ferris and O'Brien paying homage to one of Ireland's greatest ever No.8s and led to many rugby fans [myself included] musing whether that trio was the best ever back row this country has ever seen.

Across our social media channels, the surnames of Leamy, Wallace, Quinlan and Foley were all mentioned but scores agreed on Ferris-O'Brien-Heaslip as Ireland's best ever back row.

To my mind, Wallace would add more balance to that unit and was part of that Grand Slam team. However, there is no denying that Ferris-O'Brien-Heaslip definitely had the most potential. Individually, we were dealing with three world-class operators.

Together? Well, they never really had enough time to get there as an unstoppable unit.

Looking back on the matches from their era, Ferris, O'Brien and Heaslip only played together for Ireland nine times. The craziest statistic of all is that all three men started together in an Irish back row for the first time against Australia at the 2011 World Cup.

Here are all nine games the trio featured in for Ireland [Note: They only started seven games together].

  • 2009: 41-6 win over Fiji [Ferris & Heaslip started. O'Brien replaced Leamy on '43]
  • 2011: 26-22 loss to France [O'Brien & Heaslip started. Ferris replaced Jennings on '60]
  • 2011: 15-6 win over Australia at RWC
  • 2011: 36-6 win over Italy at RWC
  • 2011: 22-10 loss to Wales a RWC
  • 2012: 23-21 loss to Wales (Six Nations)
  • 2012: 42-10 win over Italy (Six Nations)
  • 2012: 17-17 draw with France (Six Nations)
  • 2012: 32-14 win over Scotland (Six Nations)
  • 2012: 30-9 loss to England (Six Nations)

Nine game [seven starts] for four victories, one draw and a defeat. No silverware claimed but the highlights were surely the World Cup wins over Australia and Italy.

Ferris was the first to go. His last game for Ireland was that Six Nations defeat to England in Twickenham.

Heaslip's last game also ended in defeat, to Wales. He was supposed to play England the following weekend but pulled out minutes before kick-off with a lower back issue. O'Brien has not played since December 2017 as he battles back from yet another tough injury.

It is a punishing, unforgiving sport and it is a real shame we did not get to see, and enjoy, more of these three top players in action together.