Rugby talking points: Competition hots up for Ireland half-backs ahead of squad announcement

If Andy Farrell and his Ireland selectors might have a dilemma over a shortage of in-form out-halves, then no such drought exists with No. 9s
Rugby talking points: Competition hots up for Ireland half-backs ahead of squad announcement

Munster's Joey Carbery celebrates with team-mate Simon Zebo after scoring a late conversion to win the United Rugby Championship match between Munster and Connacht at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

RELISHING RIVALRIES

The paucity of the South African teams in the early weeks of the United Rugby Championship, coupled with them having to play the opening four rounds in Europe due to Covid, has had a lopsided impact on the new competition.

But it’s clear the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks, and Lions are coming to terms with the fledgling tournament, so fast forward a season or two and try to visualise just how competitive the URC might become and, by association, how much will be hanging on the line in these Irish derbies.

At this early stage, the Irish Shield looks like being a three-horse race this season for the one automatic Champions Cup spot, but already it’s clear that the inter-pros are going to be up several notches this season.

St Stephen’s Day, with Leinster in Thomond Park, will be the first major showdown in that regard, but, once the new competition levels out, it should be the first of many in that regard. Long overdue, but more than welcome none the same.

By the way, if the URC finished this weekend then Ulster, Glasgow, Ospreys, Stormers, Leinster, Munster, Edinburgh, and Cardiff would be the teams going into the Champions Cup and Connacht would be confined to the Challenge Cup along with Benetton, Dragons, Lions, Scarlets, Sharks, Bulls, and Zebre.

NO. 2, YOUR TIME IS UP

You can just imagine all the scenarios the World Rugby people envisaged when designing the 50.22 law… the creation of more space on the pitch, the reward to good kickers, less bish-bash in midfield, greater input from wingers and full-backs, and so on. Did they ever envisage a scenario where forwards, many of whom wouldn’t be able to kick the ball out of their way, would suddenly fancy themselves as purveyors of the fine art of punting the Gilbert massive distances down the field?

Step forward Connacht’s Shane Delahunt, the dairy and beef farmer from Offaly, who, we believe, is the first hooker in world rugby to execute a 50.22, his fine effort coming after 62 minutes when a booming ball from inside his own half beat Andrew Conway and bounced into touch.

Alas, that’s where the feelgood factor ended as Delahunt’s feed into the lineout was crooked and possession turned over but you’d imagine training will never be the same now once other forwards end the session trying their spirals, arrows, boomers, bombs, grubbers, slicers, and so on.

OUT-HALF CONUNDRUM

If this was moving weekend in sorting the out-halves for the autumn internationals, then it was more like Lanigan’s Ball with lads stepping in and out and probably leaving Andy Farrell and management more confused than ever.

Johnny Sexton remains No.1 but seeing him limp out of the Scarlets win was another reminder he ain’t going to go on forever. His replacement, Ross Byrne, was solid, which is a sort of back-handed compliment.

The same could be said of Billy Burns, who has been overtaken again by the emergence of another goalkicker, Nathan Doak, and that left the shootout between Joey Carbery and Jack Carty.

Carty, despite the missed conversion of Paul Boyle’s try which could have made all the difference in the end, definitely put his hand up for inclusion but you suspect Farrell needs a lot of convincing.

Carbery, understandably given the long lay-offs, still looks a long way off the boil and who knows if he will get the mojo back after such injury setbacks.

Perhaps the one guy who could really have benefited from ‘moving weekend’ in the out-half battle was sitting up in the stand. Ben Healy gave the best display of an Irish out-half this season against Scarlets last week and, in hindsight, could really have done with the opportunity to shine in a tough encounter.

FEAST OR FAMINE

If Farrell and his selectors might have a dilemma over a shortage of in-form out-halves, then no such drought exists with No. 9s. We haven’t seen Conor Murray yet this season but the jostling behind him is developing into the sort of scrap coaches relish. Caolin Blade, under pressure from Kieran Marmion in Connacht, did his chances of further honours no harm on Saturday; and his opposite number Craig Casey continues to develop.

In Leinster there’s no separating Jamison Gibson-Park and Luke McGrath, while up North, with John Cooney kicking his heels after being injured, Nathan Doak has emerged as the find of the season in Ireland so far. Farrell has ignored Cooney’s claims up to now but Doak, notwithstanding he’s only 19 and still has a lot to learn, has the sort of all-round game that merits serious consideration. It will be interesting to see how he goes against tougher opposition than Ulster have faced so far in the URC.

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