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Who are the top 50 rugby players in Ireland? Ten Ulster stars make Irish Independent list

Ulster duo Jacob Stockdale and Rory Best feature in the Irish Independent's list of Ireland's top 50 players.
Ulster duo Jacob Stockdale and Rory Best feature in the Irish Independent's list of Ireland's top 50 players.

By David Kelly in the Irish Independent

When assessing the status of the top 50 players in Ireland, there are a number of factors to be determined.

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The primary one, of course, is that any such categorisation is discriminatory; it is opinion, a personal Polaroid snapshot of recall and review.

And that itself is coloured by perception; not merely how to factor in great performances on the greatest occasions but also those who delivered with consistent excellency further removed from the public's glare.

Expectations are also key; in a season where the international side continued to soar, until flat-lining alarmingly, the significant cohort who hit such peaks of greatness last year naturally did not do so this.

They remain great players; but form is temporary and this opinion reflects that concept.

And then there are the lesser lights, those not necessarily shining so brightly on the international stage but accelerating their development so swiftly that, in this snapshot of a season, it impossible to ignore their progress.

Also, this reflects a season and not a year; hence Ireland's strong finish in the unforgettable 2018 is temporarily hand-braked by a stuttering spring; autumn may transform that picture, and another assessment at the end of this calendar year.

Injuries, in this brutally capricious game, also play a part; so many have been removed because of them, or have dipped alarmingly while struggling with them.

And so this is not an academically accurate exercise; it is not meant to be. Rugby is a team sport and individual accolades always seem to conflict that ideal.

Best then to peruse on a bar stool and prolong the arguments with one's friends for this is a duty in the eye of merely one beholder.

1. JAMES RYAN

Leinster

An indisputable choice.

If anything represents the esteem in which Ryan is held, then the manner in which he scooped an unprecedented double in the Zurich IRUPA awards reflects that the respect felt amongst his peers is as exalted as the awe which he inspires amongst supporters.

Despite his relative youth, Ryan is already an established campaigner, a potential captain of club and country in the future and, perhaps, even the Lions too.

Joyless nerds might pummel one with stats but feeling is key; on his knees, twice; once carrying, making ground, another time tackling. Even when half the man, still some man.

2. CIAN HEALY

Leinster

The eagerness with which the IRFU sought to retain his services as a key plank of their centrally-contracted system is a vivid illustration of the Clontarf man's revived importance.

That he has despatched a former rival, Jack McGrath, once supreme for club and country, and a Lion too, from Leinster represents a triumph of will and courage few, chiefly himself, thought possible a few years ago.

As much as Tadhg Furlong remains, as tightheads should, the fulcrum of the operation, Healy's importance on the other side has been just as key to club and country.

3. JACK CONAN

Leinster

One of the many players we shall file under the category of those exceeding expectations; not least his own.

A one-time bit-part player, Conan has assumed more responsibility for his own improvement and repaid the faith of others who have allowed him to demonstrate it.

A short time ago, he might have been deemed a surplus requirement on a Rugby World Cup voyage but given his improvement, combined with necessary opportunity, his consistent excellence marks him down as a potential first-choice for the significant assignments ahead.

A brutish figure, but no less skilful for that.

4. KEITH EARLS

Munster

Continues to play the best rugby of his career since an enlightened - and lightened - alteration in the demands he makes of himself allowed him to display his very best.

One of the best half-dozen performers in the Six Nations and his return to scoring form for club and country have been reflective of his relaxed confidence in an ability that was always there, yet sometimes crushed with his own uncertainty.

Now 31, he seems to be in the prime of his life. Outstanding for Ireland; dipped against England but most did.

Few players in provincial rugby could claim to have been the difference between a win and a loss on a key occasion but Earls was that player with a brace against Edinburgh in a scrappy European quarter-final, scoring a clinical double.

5. SCOTT FARDY

Leinster

Has maintained a sturdy tradition of Antipodean heavyweights ballasting the Leinster pack. Now a noted leader at Leinster, where he more often than not captains the side when Rhys Ruddock and Johnny Sexton are absent.

Versatility does not diminish his ability and, in a season where Leinster's pack achieved new levels of consistency, his status was confirmed by the decision to extend his contract.

He has everything - power and precision on and off the ball, a deceptively extensive fitness, cuteness, acuteness and a decent passer too. Rules the skies from touch and devious, devilish, on the floor.

6. JACOB STOCKDALE

Ulster

In many ways illustrative of the lurching highs and lows of an Irish season; from the intuitive brilliance which stunned the All Blacks to the hapless bluster that cost Ulster against Leinster.

He could not have managed the first without previously almost gifting the opposition a score; he could not have mis-managed the second were it not for his jaw-dropping ability to beat so many others to create the chance in the first place.

Stockdale is a player who draws spectators to the game, who lures even those with little interest in the sport into its momentary gaze. He has many flaws but that is how he is designed.

Were he not to be indulged, the sport would be poorer for it. The thrill of being in a Belfast crowd on a European day when he is in full flight - against Racing, for example - lifts the soul.

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Jacob Stockdale

7. TADHG BEIRNE

Munster

Some of the things Beirne has demonstrated on the field this season have been quite extraordinary; then again, some more have been quite ordinary. Another curate's egg.

Repatriated, albeit bypassing Leinster, Beirne was identified as one of the missing links for a Munster side seeking to ascend to the next level; sadly, his team once more faltered when the heat was turned up. And so did he.

This was disappointing as there were times in a red shirt this season when he was virtually unplayable, so much so that it was often a surprise when Joe Schmidt deemed him unplayable too, even if injury intervened to interrupt his late 2018 progress.

His anarchic streak in red didn't transfer to the national camp and we will argue that it is Ireland's loss.

At his best, Beirne represents something different.

8. JACK CARTY

Connacht

If describing someone as the 'most improved' is judged as delivering an utterly patronising compliment with the back of one's hand, then please don a black cap and pronounce guilt.

Carty has had many admirers in recent seasons but an inability to manage the game, and an even more crippling inadequacy from the placed-kick, restrained the progress of someone whose trickery and invention in attack was always evident.

This season he mastered the balance between being a general and a genius; forging a straight line of improvement that mirrored his arrowed deliveries from the tee.

He has arrived; that may be the easy bit done with. Now he must stay there.

9. JAMES LOWE

Leinster

Sport needs to make us smile and, if somebody can manage it while spending most of the time smiling himself, well all the better. But Lowe has high standards too.

A freakish, contorting ability to finish from any angle and an arse - glutes, quoth the nerds - big and wide enough to shift aside any impudent assault from would-be tacklers.

The good news for sports fans is that next year Lowe will be available for every European game. Like Earls and Conway, Stockdale and Jordan Larmour, he's worth the box-office fee. Stars usually are.

10. JORDAN LARMOUR

Leinster

The indelible memory of Chicago is still etched within this childish heart; steelier, harsher brains will cavil at the deficiencies that limit Larmour's greatness but we prefer the soul to steer our sense of wonder.

He is only 21; already he has demonstrated he can be a game-maker as well as a game-breaker. Against France, one would argue he effectively decided the contest by pushing the visitors back with a decisive early territorial kick.

Before, he would have gambled; maturity has taught him to measure the odds, without abandoning the free spirit that makes him so captivating to all.

11. MARCELL COETZEE

Ulster

A season finally free of major injury worries has finally unleashed the South African as a pre-eminent back-rower who has energised a resurgent Ulster pack.

He Has repaid Ulster's faith by extending his deal and his all-round game - tackling, turnover and punishing carrying, not to mention a neat step and pass - can lead to more improvement next term.

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Marcell Coetzee

12. CJ STANDER

Munster

One of the most eye-catching moments of the season was Stander's departure with a fractured cheekbone after smashing into Tom Curry against England - and then playing on.

Bravery undenied but the worry is, as Munster tinker on the back of Ireland's ill-judged switch from No 8, Stander's consistency may be undermined.

13. DEVIN TONER

Leinster

Absent for much of the Six Nations but his importance to the central tenet of Joe Schmidt's possession game remains key.

One only had to see the misfiring from touch against Argentina to be reminded of his value to the cause.

14. IAIN HENDERSON

Ulster

Finally a season when the great hope of the north compiled a steady string of displays which didn't deviate in terms of quality and application, primarily because there were no such lapses within games.

Still on the outside looking in when it comes to key Test match selection but can now be trusted more than ever to deliver a top performance when required.

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Listening brief: Iain Henderson with Ulster boss Dan McFarland

15. JONATHAN SEXTON

Leinster

World Player of the Year but for only half of this season; struggled with the collective toil of the Six Nations when clearly reaching for full fitness and match sharpness.

When Ireland and Leinster shone, so did he but that didn't happen always; indeed at times Leo Cullen deemed it more prudent to stoically de-select him. A rest will do him a power of good.

16. GARRY RINGROSE

Leinster

In some eyes, the final of the Champions Cup will mark his season down as one of under-achievement, when he failed to locate an over-load that might have changed the narrative of that final.

That would be unfair on a player who remains one of the key components for club and country, his improved defence allying with his creativity and ability on the ball marking him down as one of the brightest talents in our game.

17. SEAN CRONIN

Leinster

Another curious case in this roller-coaster Irish season. Has been sparkling for Leinster all term, one of their best performers in Europe - and a scoring sensation too.

And yet even though he was the most complete hooker in our eyes, he chose the highest point of his international career - a belated debut Six Nations start - to produce his least effective day out.

18. JOHN COONEY

Ulster

Maintained his high standard of performance in an Ulster shirt and was capable of much more game-time in a green one on the limited evidence available.

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John Cooney

19. TADHG FURLONG

Leinster

Outstanding for Leinster in Europe and continues to demonstrate his importance to the Irish team in both the tight and the loose despite flagging for a time in the spring.

20. PETER O'MAHONY

Munster

A stand-out against the All Blacks and while international form rarely dipped, struggled to gain traction at the business end of Munster's season.

21. DAVE KILCOYNE

Munster

Solid performer whose best work came in Munster colours but offers himself as a vital back-up for Joe Schmidt's squad.

22. ROBBIE HENSHAW

Leinster

An injury-hit campaign prevented this outstanding player from gaining any real momentum, which is a shame because when he did perform he did so with aplomb, aside from that awkward little difficulty against England.

23. JOEY CARBERRY

Munster

Another mocked by injuries during the campaign, the out-half did really well to recover from an individual and collective implosion in Castres; his unerring place-kicking now a statistical marvel but not available, or unable to deliver, when his influence was needed most.

24. BUNDEE AKI

Connacht

Since the England defeat, however, Aki's automatic presence has become uncertain and, although he performed at a high level all term, an underwhelming display in the European exit cast a pall.

25. KIERAN MARMION

Connacht

Demonstrated his quality against All Blacks but the trust in him then was not always reciprocated.

26. STUART MCCLOSKEY

Ulster

Remains a dominant force on the provincial scene but has not managed to convince international selectors that his game can translate to a higher level.

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Stuart McCloskey

27. ULTAN DILLANE

Connacht

Played an unusual game of 'in and out' with club colleague Quinn Roux as the Six Nations beckoned. Developing into a more consistent performer as he ages.

28. CONOR MURRAY

Munster

A season defined by injury and loss of form, aside from occasional highlights which offer hope to all that enduring class will emerge this autumn.

29. JORDI MURPHY

Ulster

Another who benefited from Ulster's uplift although ironically a move that was supposed to augment the international picture has not necessarily been as personally rewarding as he would have wished.

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Jordi Murphy in action for Ulster

30. RORY BEST

Ulster

Final season with Ulster ended in familiar disappointment and although Ireland retain faith in their captain, he has struggled to consistently convince that he can remain an automatic first-choice.

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Rory Best

31. ANDREW CONWAY

Munster

Did not reach the highs of the previous season and there is a feeling that his talents are now best suited to full-back at Munster were they to challenge their game-plan.

32. ROB KEARNEY

Leinster

There seems little enthusiasm to retain his services and the World Cup may prove the swansong for one of the country's greatest players of the professional era.

33. LUKE MCGRATH

Leinster

Another disrupted by injury and, although he won't be the first choice in Japan, must continue to raise the bar to see off stiffening competition.

34. COLBY FAINGA'A

Connacht

Seems unfair to discriminate against some of Connacht's enigmatic performers under Andy Friend but we have been intoxicated by this bundle of energy in the westerner's back-row.

35. JOSH VAN DER FLIER

Leinster

A season of two halves for Ireland's best openside flanker.

36. CHRIS FARRELL

Munster

Continues to offer something different as an off-loading option in midfield for club and country.

37. TOM FARRELL

Connacht

Breakout season for midfielder of elegant persuasion and powerful intent.

38. CAOLIN BLADE

Connacht

Made huge strides and even jumped ahead of Marmion in scrum-half joust out west.

39. ROSS BYRNE

Leinster

Showed he can replace Sexton on big occasions and always delivers in the league.

40. RHYS RUDDOCK

Leinster

Always reliable back-up to the main options for club and country.

41. JOHN RYAN

Munster

Continues to kick on in quest to establish himself as stand-out Furlong stand-in.

42. ROB HERRING

Ulster

Consistent hooker in improving Ulster pack.

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Ulster's Rob Herring made his 150th appearance for the province in December.

43. NIALL SCANNELL

Munster

Doughty performer facing a three-way battle for World Cup selection.

44. MAX DEEGAN

Leinster

Significant force who can replace back-row legends.

45. ROBERT BALOUCOUNE

Ulster

Sparkling jewel in back-line who can only get better.

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Ulster winger Robert Baloucoune celebrates with fans

46. ANDREW PORTER

Leinster

Trustworthy squad player but occasionally exposed against better opponents.

47. SEAN O'BRIEN

Leinster

Departing legend of the game saw his farewell season once more cruelly undone by injury and then a lapse of form just when it was most needed.

48. WILL ADDISON

Ulster

Irish fans didn't get to see enough of this impressive, classy running and passing three-quarters who could still make a World Cup impression.

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Star man: Will Addison goes over for an Ulster try against Scarlets

49. PAUL BOYLE

Connacht

Wexford man made an eye-catching breakthrough, earning his first professional contract.

50. JARRAD BUTLER

Connacht

Outstanding leader in Connacht's brilliant season.

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