Joe Schmidt has two clear options to replace Sean O'Brien
At the end of the Lions Tour to New Zealand, Warren Gatland was sitting around with Andy Farrell, Rob Howley and the rest of his coaching team when they got to picking their player of the tour.
The coach's vote did not count - the players themselves would be selecting their official, main man - but Gatland offered up his opinion.
'I thought about it for a few seconds,' Gatland writes in his book 'In The Line of Fire', 'and replied, "That's a good question. Maybe Sean O'Brien".'
Jonathan Davies edged O'Brien out but that revelation from Gatland makes it all the more annoying that the Ireland back-row now looks set to miss the opening games of this year's Six Nations championship.
In a statement released on Friday afternoon, Leinster stated that O'Brien's injured hip was not responding as well as they had hoped to treatment and that he may be back available 'during the Six Nations window'. That looks set to rule him out of the France and Italy games before there is a gap week mid-championship.
O'Brien has been carrying this troubling hip injury since November but it really started to impinge on his game by the time the Champions Cup games rolled around, a month later. Following the dogged win over Exeter, we wrote:
'O'Brien was shifted from open- to blindside for the visit of Exeter Chiefs to Dublin but it was pretty evident that he was not 100%. Far from it.
'Leinster were blown away in the opening half hour, at the Aviva Stadium. O'Brien was not only struggling to stem the tide, he was struggling to get about the pitch. Seeing him grimace, curse, and strike his legs - as if willing them to respond to his demands - was a disconcerting sight.'
At the time, we called on Leinster and Ireland to make the tough but necessary decision on the Carlow man. To rest him up and get him right rather than pushing him beyond the brink. Thankfully, that seems to have been the course taken.
That leaves Joe Schmidt at least one man down from his ideal back row, while Jamie Heaslip was his go-to No.8 for seven years before his unfortunate back injury, last March. The silver lining here is that Schmidt has four decent options to fill in for O'Brien in Paris, and all of them do their business in the one province.
- Josh van der Flier [Leinster]
- Dan Leavy [Leinster]
- Jack Conan [Leinster]
- Jordi Murphy [Leinster]
Jordi Murphy has done well by Schmidt in the past, most notably in Chicago against the All Blacks, but was not at his best in the win over Fiji. He starts at blindside for Leinster in the Champions Cup but can easily cover openside. Jack Conan is another versatile back row that would let no-one down in the role. Rhys Ruddock may have been the simplest choice, for Schmidt anyway, but he is out with a hamstring injury.
There are two clear options for Schmidt to choose between - Dan Leavy or Josh van der Flier.
Leavy was sensational as 2017 wound down and is an absolute mongrel at the breakdown. We were thoroughly impressed with his outing, off the bench, against Exeter in that same game that O'Brien battled through.
Leavy has four Test outings for Ireland and made one Six Nations appearance, against England, last year. The former Ireland U20 captain could yet be a mainstay in the national back row but he may have to bide his time on the bench.
Schmidt could surprise us yet - and he often does - but Josh van der Flier is the prime candidate to accompany Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander in the back row. The tackle machine is a work-horse and someone who has proven himself against some of the top teams in the world.
Earlier this season, on The Hard Yards, Ireland rugby legend Stephen Ferris was effusive in his praise for van der Flier.
"I think he's a starter [for Ireland] and he's a better 7 than Sean O'Brien. Seanie has got to a stage of his career where he's probably not as good over the ball as he used to be... Josh is such a talented player and, by all accounts, he is such a down-to-earth and level-leaded player. There's no arrogance about him. That goes a long way, also."
That endorsement, a similar one from Ronan O'Gara, his form and those 34 tackles against Connacht are four good enough reasons for us.
Now, all Schmidt has to do is decide if Keith Earls comes back in, settle on a midfield partner for Robbie Henshaw and somehow feature Jordan Larmour in his matchday 23 and we're flying.
OUR IRELAND TEAM TO FACE FRANCE
Rory Best (captain)
Josh van der Flier
The Hard Yards
Keith Earls and James Downey join us in studio, Donnacha Ryan phones in from Paris and we hear from Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton
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