Front row up for grabs

It was only 18 months ago that Declan Kidney stood in the bowels of Twickenham and bemoaned the alarming dearth of quality tighthead props in Ireland.

Front row up for grabs

The then Irish national coach had just witnessed his only genuine Test-standard tighthead Mike Ross depart the field with a neck injury, forcing him to send on unfortunate replacement Tom Court, the Ulster loosehead, who was then taken to the cleaners by the English front row.

Fortunately for Ireland, Test team replacements now number both loosehead and tighthead props but Kidney’s angst stemmed in the lack of game time his young potential Test tightheads were getting with their provinces.

Fast forward to this weekend and Kidney’s successor Joe Schmidt has been spoiled for choice in terms of front row viewing options.

Last night, Irish capped tightheads started for both Ulster and Connacht, with Declan Fitzpatrick taking on the Ospreys for the northerners while in Italy, Ronan Loughney starting for Pat Lam’s side against Treviso.

Ross, who turns 34 in December, is still the undisputed top dog and will pack down for Leinster at Thomond Park this evening with 22-year-old Martin Moore emerging as a more than reliable understudy. And for the home side, Munster’s Stephen Archer faces another major litmus test of his potential as Ross’s successor when he scrums down against Cian Healy.

As far as the 25-year-old Archer is concerned, the future is bright regarding his pivotal position.

“Yeah, looking around all the provinces there’s good tightheads,” he said.

“There’s a good bit of competition for when Rossy calls it a day but even now I think there’s a good bit of competition for him, even at Leinster.

“Martin Moore has done well for them in the last few weeks and up in the north they’ve got Deccie Fitz doing well and out in Connacht Ronan Loughney, so there’s a good bunch of tightheads around and Rossy certainly has a bit of competition out there.”

A product of the Munster academy who made his first team debut in October 2009, Archer has made steady progress at his province while above him in the pecking order, the legendary John Hayes was succeeded by Springbok BJ Botha.

Archer made his Heineken Cup debut in January 2012, replacing Botha in a home game against Castres and has seen enough action to travel on a pathway from the Ireland U20 side through the Wolfhounds to a Test debut off the bench as a replacement for fellow Corkman Ross during last season’s Six Nations defeat to Italy in Rome.

That career trajectory hit a speed bump a few weeks later when he dislocated a bone in his left wrist during a league game against the Dragons, forcing him to sit out the summer tour to North America.

“It would have been nice to make that US tour,” he said. “Stuck on one cap now, so it would have been nice to have got a second or a third. The tour went well for the lads with a couple of good wins over there so it was disappointing not to go but it’s good to be back now.”

Despite Munster’s poor recent record against their old enemies, without a win in the last four meetings, Archer is relishing the opportunity of a high-intensity game against Leinster presents.

“Last year, certainly for me, Leinster was the most physical match of the year. It was a real physical battle that day in Thomond Park. That second half turned into a bit of a slogfest when the rain came in. It was a real physical battle and definitely a step above any other league matches.

“We’ll be up against the Irish front row, basically, so it’s an opportunity for us to stake our claim and try and put a bit of pressure on the lads and put our hands up for selection for national camp.”

It is not just a battle for a place in Schmidt’s Ireland squad that Archer faces. Back in his province, the competition for a starting jersey is as ferocious as he has experienced with Botha fit again and on the bench tonight following a knee injury suffered in pre-season and fellow Cork Constitution prop John Ryan breathing down his neck following some impressive outings.

“We had a good scrummaging session on Tuesday, good mauling session, so there’s good competition. It’s going well so far, we’re happy enough with where our scrum is and hoping to build it up now for the next block and go up a few levels. It drives you to train harder.

When you see fellas doing well on the pitch you want to get out there and out-do them so it’s all part of a competitive environment.”

This evening, though, the focus will be firmly placed on outdoing Leinster.

“That was our last win, wasn’t it? May 2011? So we owe them a few. It’s been so long but hopefully Saturday night we’ll rectify that.”

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox