Ireland have won three out of three World Cup pool games and already secured a quarter-final spot ahead of this Sunday’s pool decider against France, but how have the Ulstermen faired so far in the tournament?
Here at The Front Row Union, we thought we would take a look at Ulster’s contribution to the World Cup and decipher which players are likely to be involved in Ireland’s toughest test of the pool stages at the weekend. We shall also be totalling the scores we gave to each of the Ulster contingent at the end of every pool game played so far (marks were awarded out of 10).
One name springs to mind as we start to imagine Joe Schmidt sitting down to pencil in his starting XV. A young mountain of a man, who has made a name for himself on the international stage with a standout performance against Canada and a man-of-the-match display against Italy. Yes, still only 23-years-old, Iain Henderson has been a shining light for Ireland so far. An enthusiasm for all aspects of his work in the second-row or back-row combines effortlessly with a physicality unmatched by any recent opposition in his position. Henderson’s ball carrying ability and strength when slowing ball down is key to Ireland’s forward play, with his contribution leading to praise from fellow Ulsterman Rory Best, “he’s a bit of a genetic freak and if you give him the ball in certain situations he’s very hard to stop.”
This “genetic freak” has forced his way into a starting position in the second-row during the World Cup by overtaking Leinster’s Devin Toner. Totalling his scores and out of a possible 20 marks (starts against Canada and Italy), Henderson has come away with an impressive 18/20. A definite starter against France.
The front row pinpoints a certain Ulsterman who has contributed to Ireland’s success over the years. Having already started in games against Canada and Italy and performed at the highest level in both, this invaluable hooker is set to make another appearance on Sunday. Ulster’s captain Rory Best has been consistent at the line-out and carried impressively around the fringes.
Looking at Best’s scores over the weeks brings us to a total of 14/20, having started twice in the tournament so far. Always strong defensively, he shall be required to stop an audacious French side.
Ireland’s centre conundrum has seen us introduced to several partnerships since the departure of Brian O’Driscoll. Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw has filled the 12 shirt in midfield and Schmidt’s opted for a well-rounded and fleet footed 13 in Jared Payne this year. Payne is always a threat and provides electric pace outside a physical Henshaw. Sidelined with a foot injury for Ireland’s Italian clash has meant Payne’s tournament momentum has been halted slightly. However, Schmidt is said to be quietly confident about Payne’s progress and he should start on Sunday.
Having scored a credible 14/20 across his two starts against Canada and Romania, Payne’s dynamism and bond with Henshaw will see him in, if available.
Moving out towards the back-line and it becomes tricky. Although having scored twice against Romania and impressed during Ireland’s win over Italy, Payne’s return to fitness may push Ulster’s Tommy Bowe towards a bench position, given the recent form of Keith Earls on the wing. With fellow Ulsterman Payne set to start in the centre on Sunday, Earls (who started in the centre last week) will move back to his familiar position on the wing with Dave Kearney potentially filling the other wing, given his recent form.
However, Bowe has improved his game since the World Cup warm-up fixtures and has scored a solid 13/20 here at The FRU across his two starts. Although fearful of competition for places on the wing, we believe Bowe’s ability to chase the box-kick down the right wing is needed for this one.
Looking at the bench, Chris Henry should maintain his position as back-row cover given his contributions over the weeks. The only Ulsterman to be involved in all three matches, having started against Romania and impressed as a substitute during wins over Canada and Italy. A total of 20/30 should maintain Henry’s role as an impact player from the bench.
Ulster’s Darren Cave has performed well, but his battle with Luke Fitzgerald for that all important back-up centre spot seems problematic. Fitzgerald appears to be in favour, despite Cave’s fantastic performance against Romania, for which The FRU awarded him 8/10.
An Ulster favourite in Paddy Jackson is unfortunately sitting behind Leinster’s Ian Madigan for the title of Johnny Sexton’s understudy. It is likely we will see Madigan on the bench but Jackson has given a good account of himself so far, we gave him 6/10 for his replacement performance against Romania.
The FRU predicts: Henderson, Best, Payne and Bowe to start with Henry on the bench.