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24th Feb 2024

Welsh legend labels Ireland back row ‘best in rugby, at the minute’

Patrick McCarry

“That’s such a nice compliment.”

Asked, on the spot [by me, admittedly] to ponder the best back rows in world rugby, Josh van der Flier went through the hit-list but was careful not to leave out the three players pushing hard for starting Ireland roles.

Van der Flier put in another fine performance in a green jersey but was replaced after 50 minutes by Jack Conan when the micro-chip in his mouthguard registered that he had shipped a big hit. Under new guidelines, the Ireland medical staff were alerted and off he went for a Head Injury Assessment. By the time he was cleared to continue, after passing HIA 1, Andy Farrell opted to leave Jack Conan on.

Ryan Baird replaced Peter O’Mahony on 54 minutes, leaving Caelan Doris to finish out as openside and captain. Between the five players used in the Irish back row, they combined for 60 tackles, only one missed, 34 carries for 106 metres gained, five lineouts one, a clean break and five defenders beaten. Throw in 100+ ruck involvements between them and it is little wonder Wales were only always hanging on in there.

Ahead of the game, former Wales and Lions centre Jamie Roberts set out what a formidable unit his compatriots would be up against, at Lansdowne Road. He told ITV:

“That back row is formidable. When I look at Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris, jeez, it’s probably the best back row in rugby, at the minute.”

Josh van der Flier (left) and former Wales centre Jamie Roberts. (Credit: Sportsfile)

Josh van der Flier on ‘best back row’ shout

Informed of those Jamie Roberts comments after Ireland’s 31-7 win over Wales, Josh van der Flier could not help but break into an appreciative grin.

“Oh, that’s such a nice compliment,” he began. “It’s hard to pick someone off the spot. The likes of New Zealand and South Africa are always good, in terms of their back row. France have brilliants back rows.

“One thing for us, in Ireland, has been that competition in the back rows, across the provinces and, obviously, internationally. You look at the last game and I think Jack Conan was brilliant – he hadn’t had a huge amount of game time before the championship. Ryan Baird has been very good. There is so much depth. Then you have a brilliant player like Nick Timoney, who hasn’t featured yet. That competition really drives us on.

“It’s also the way the team wants to play. Some teams have the perfect back row for the way they want to play the game. Some can be confrontational. Some may be lighter or more agile. There’s a lot of good combinations out there. England, even for our next game, will be a really tough test.”

The genuine gush that descended on the van der Flier visage told you how much the Roberts praise meant. He won World Rugby Player of the Year in 2022 and is in a unit with a potential 2025 Lions captain and a guy that captained the Lions in 2017, yet he was almost taken aback. Sums up the man, in a lot of ways.

Ireland bossing it against France, two years in a row, puts their back row ahead in terms of northern hemisphere offerings. The big competition for ‘best in the world’ would be New Zealand – Shannon Frizzell, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea – and world champions, South Africa – Siya Kolisi and Pieter Steph du Toit are still going but Duane Vermeulen has hung up his boots [Kwagga Smith, anyone?]

As for the Irish back row, they have the settled offering of Ethan Root, Sam Underhill and Ben Earl. Ireland have the edge, but it will be a mighty contest within a contest.


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