The Top 20 rugby players in Ireland right now
These are the best players and most influential men in Irish rugby, right now.
The men's Six Nations is now in the history books and the Irish rugby stars have returned to the provinces for the climax to the 2021/22 season.
With Ireland not back in action until their summer tour to New Zealand, we have taken the opportunity to look at the rugby landscape, and the players making their teams tick, and compile our Top 20.
Before we launch in, a note that this Top 20 is for players that are eligible to play for Ireland, so no digs intended at the wonderful likes of Damien De Allende, Duane Vermeulen, et al. Now, in ascending order, from 20 to 1, let's get to it.
TOP 20 IRISH RUGBY PLAYERS
20. Conor Murray
Had to settle for a bench role for four of the five games, but proved his worth, and influence, in the wins over Wales, England and Scotland. Lions captain last summer, will be hoping to get at least one start against the All Blacks. Turning 33, next month, so it may be all about if he embraces the veteran bench option for Ireland. Still a key Munster man.
19. Iain Henderson
2020/21 was arguably his best ever season and he was rightly rewarded with a second Lions call-up, even if he saw no Test minutes. Has found it hard to get a run of minutes, due to injuries and a positive Covid test. Played 79 minutes off the bench against England, after James Ryan was concussed, and looked back to his best against Scotland. Could well start in the second row against the ABs, this summer, and a strong finish could see in the mix for a trophy with Ulster.
18. Peter O'Mahony
Andy Farrell clearly rates what the Munster captain provides to this Ireland squad - experience, good decision-making, a lineout presence and a solid grafter. Started two Six Nations games and showed he was willing to embrace the new, quicker tempo, offloading style Farrell is trying to implement.
17. Dan Sheehan
Went into the Six Nations having on made six professional rugby starts, all for Leinster. Ended it as the man in possession of the No.2 jersey, Man of the Match against Italy and a guy Rónan Kelleher will not find it easy shifting back to the replacements' bench. Did well against France but was targeted by England at the scrum.
16. Andrew Conway
Did not have it all his own way in the Six Nations, but still a vital cog in this Ireland team. Scored two tries in the home win over Wales and got starts against France and England, with rotation [Italy] and injury [Scotland] sidelining him for the other two. Does everything he is asked, makes bad kicks look good and good kicks look great. Has a great try-scoring strike rate that is second only to Jacob Stockdale.
15. James Lowe
Missed Ireland's first two championship games, but returned to show what an important player he has become for Ireland. Ran in two tries and assisted on another, against Italy, and got Ireland motoring with a redemptive try against England. That big left boot of his was working wonders and he made numerous useful forays in from his wing.
14. Robbie Henshaw
Like Conor Murray, he was a big impact player off the bench. Made a considerable impact against France and England, and was solid against the Scots. His one start of the championship was against Italy. Will be reunited with Garry Ringrose for the Leinster run-in, and that could be enough to push himself back into the starting XV picture for the summer.
13. James Ryan
Was showing, all this season, why he should have travelled with the Lions, last summer. Started all eight Tests of Ireland's 2021/22 season until he picked up another worrying concussion against England. Still questions of his captaincy after the loss to France, but a major force around the pitch for Leinster and Ireland. Remains to be seen when he will return after taking some time out due to concussion issues.
12. Jack Conan
Would have been higher up the Top 20, heading into the Six Nations. Not that he had a poor stretch of games, more so that he was so good for the Lions, last summer, and in that win over New Zealand and those levels dipped slightly. Was getting 50-minute stretches in his three Ireland starts, and came off the bench in the wins over Italy and England. Scored a crucial try in the closing stages against England.
11. Bundee Aki
Started his Six Nations campaign off with a great performance against Italy. Was solid but unspectacular. If Wales was his peak, England was his trough, but he finished well against the Scots. Will need to be at his very, very best if Connacht are to ruffle Leinster's feathers, in Europe, and finish the United Rugby championship on a high.
10. Garry Ringrose
Another player that looked like a dream in the home win over Wales, but altogether more human in the away trips to France and England. The big backline driver of getting off the line and pressing up on the opposition when balls were sprayed wide. Was having a fine Leinster season, too, before international duty beckoned.
9. Jamison Gibson Park
Has locked down the No.9 jersey and is growing in influence on proceedings. The only game he looked ropey in - and he was not the only one - was France, in Paris. Still, grabbed a second half try in that game and grabbed another against Italy. Superb against Wales, one of the best performers against England and had the Scots in big trouble with quick-tap penalties. Will be interesting to see if he can bump out Luke McGrath at Leinster, as the season's biggest games come up on the slate.
8. Rónan Kelleher
Another one that would have been ranked higher had we posted these heading into the Six Nations, but still high up as he is that important to what this Ireland team is all about. Leinster too. Has helped elevate an already strong Ireland front row in the past 12 months and is a real attacking, ball-carrying, try-scoring menace.
7. Andrew Porter
Played three games before picking up an injury against Italy. His transition from tighthead to loosehead has been seamless and, like Kelleher and Sheehan, has now strengthened Ireland massively. A big turnover threat, while cutting down the penalty count. Great hands and another big forward that defences have to take seriously.
6. Caelan Doris
Has replaced CJ Stander as the back-row to put in full 80-minute efforts and look as good in the closing stages as he did at the start. His best games were against Wales and England, where he was denied a super try by a knock-on earlier in the play. Switched between blindside and No.8 and is an unflappable presence that gets through a bundle of work.
5. Josh van der Flier
Shooting into not only the Top 10 but Top 5. Was already showing, last season, how much his passing and carrying had become, and has taken that up a notch again. The line-speed lynchpin and a guy really comfortable against the very best now. After scoring two tries in his first 31 Test outings, racked up five more in his nine appearances this season. Nominated for Player of the Six Nations, losing out to Antoine Dupont [no shame there]. With Will Connors and Dan Leavy both having injury issues, van der Flier's consistency has been crucial, for Leinster and Ireland.
4. Hugo Keenan
Labelling players 'world class' is often a moveable feast, and you can argue that any regular starter in a team ranked in the world top 10 can is 'world class'. Another way to look at it is by comparing Keenan to the other best 15s in world rugby. He might not be at Jordie Barrett or Willie Le Roux levels yet, but he honestly is not far off. He was certainly the best 15 on show in the Six Nations. As we stated in a recent piece on Keenan, he is not just consistent, he is consistently brilliant.
3. Tadhg Beirne
We are now into the real high achievers, and the men that make this Ireland team really tick. Guys that Andy Farrell will be relying on a lot over the next 18 months. Tadhg Beirne is one of them, and his evolution within this Ireland team is remarkable. Joe Schmidt would drop him in and out, but Farrell is completely sold on the impact he provides around the pitch. Always come up with big plays, solid on restarts and is a right nuisance at the breakdown.
2. Johnny Sexton
It became clear in the 2021 Six Nations that it was Sexton that made this Ireland team really hum. For all the potential pitfalls of having a 36-year-old outhalf, we have seen Ireland at the peak when Sexton is on the pitch pulling the levers. Plays at a higher line that the other 10s, his passing is class and he can push the tempo. Will alternate with Ross Byrne, back at Leinster, but will be pressing to start their really big games, especially in Europe.
1. Tadhg Furlong
Weirdly enough, Tadhg Furlong struggling at the scrum in the England game only went to prove how pivotal he is to this Ireland side, and how we still can take the man for granted. It was then argued, by Nigel Owens, no less, that Furlong had been given a rough ride by the match officials. Imperious in his other four championship outings. Still with the first receiver plays, pull-back passes, nifty footwork and occasional scrumhalf fill-ins. The most important player to Ireland, and their top one at that.
Others just outside the Top 20 were Joey Carbery, Mike Lowry, James Hume, Mack Hansen, Finlay Bealham and Cian Healy.
Honourable mentions, too, for lads going well at their provinces but not getting much of a look-in with Andy Farrell - Alan O'Connor, Fineen Wycherley, Mike Haley, Rhys Ruddock, Robert Baloucoune, Conor Oliver, Gavin Coombes, Simon Zebo, Nathan Doak, Rhys Ruddock, Ross Byrne and Luke McGrath.