Cian Healy within touching distance of joining Irish rugby’s centurion club

When Dave Kilcoyne and Jack McGrath were named in Ireland’s matchday 23 to face Italy 12 months ago, Cian Healy lost no sleep.

Cian Healy within touching distance of joining Irish rugby’s centurion club

When Dave Kilcoyne and Jack McGrath were named in Ireland’s matchday 23 to face Italy 12 months ago, Cian Healy lost no sleep.

Being dropped is hard on the ego, but being rested for a Six Nations game is the complete opposite — an implicit sign the player is so important that the coach doesn’t dare risk injury.

But this year Healy will want no rest.

With 96 caps in the bag, and a 97th to come against Wales, the Leinster man won’t want to any weekend off.

By the time Ireland run out in Paris in mid-March, the 32-year-old could be readying himself to put together a few words on becoming only the sixth Irish centurion.

Given how rare the honour is, it’s peculiar to think back 10 years to 2010 when John Hayes became the first Ireland player to reach a century of caps. A fortnight later, Brian O’Driscoll joined him, and by Autumn, Ronan O’Gara had completed a legendary triumvirate.

But a decade on, just two players have joined that trio — Paul O’Connell (2014) and Rory Best (2016). After three in nine months, it feels like quite a drought. But are the record books being prepared for a reprint?

If Healy stays fit, and is not ‘rested’ by Andy Farrell, he would become a centurion in the fitting colosseum of Stade de France, while Johnny Sexton will tip into the tomorrow, hopeful he has another year or two in which he can add another ten caps.

Rob Kearney (95 caps) must fear he will end his Ireland career — like Peter Stringer (98) and Jamie Heaslip (95) before him — agonisingly short of the mark that separates the great from the greatest.

Just 57 players have ever reached the century mark at Test level, with the great Philippe Sella first achieving it in the mid-1990s.

David Campese followed in 1996, but the bones of a decade passed before Jason Leonard and George Gregan and Gareth Thomas hit the mark — with only nine players achieving the honour before the 2010 mark.

Then, as the number of Tests played by unions all over the world grew, the number began to grow.

Ireland, for example, went from playing 80 games from 1990-2000 to 111 games from 2000-2010.

Twenty players reached the century mark before retiring in 2015, with the rest of the 22 doing so in the following half-decade.

Nine remain active, but it’s worth noting that a majority of those are Tier 2 players from Romania, Russia, or Georgia.

So, is there a new glut due — the likes of Healy, Sexton, Aaron Smith, George North, Ben Youngs and Michael Hooper, and will they be followed by many more?

Are the increasingly physical demands likely to lower the feed of centurions to a trickle once more?

We spoke to a number of people at the provinces and there was a struggle for consensus. International players are playing less for their club, with the average game-time for an Ireland player from Leinster limited to five/six PRO14 games, while they can tot up to seven/eight in a full European campaign.

On that side, it would make sense for more players to play more Tests, but it’s not clear that will be the case.

Injuries, in a sport that’s becoming increasingly physical, could be another explanation, but again a provincial source said the facts don’t support that claim either, with fewer players being injured — even if those who are seriously injured may spend more time out.

So what’s the most likely explanation?

Rugby Players Ireland CEO, former Leinster and Harlequins players, Simon Keogh offers this insight.

“I think that, quite simply, the greater proliferation of top quality players available to national coaches has meant that competition for places has increased,” he said.

“Through the individual management of players, more are getting and taking their opportunities and broadening the options both provincially and consequently on a national level.

“Take our chairman [Rob Kearney] as an example; an incredible servant for Ireland in his 95 caps, but he has yet to feature in the Six Nations this year.”

Luck is another element — with the likes of Heaslip nailed on to make it to 100 had injuries not hit, an element that appears the only barrier to Healy and Sexton joining the most elite club.

“You’d hope that both Cian, Johnny and many more besides will reach the milestone,” Keogh said.

“It would be a huge achievement, especially coming within arguably the greatest decade rugby in Ireland has seen.

I have no doubt that they will do all in their power to do so but there are no guarantees in this game.

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