Saturday 16 December 2017

The big picture for Irish

Super-sized backs aiming to follow Welsh example and make case to Kidney

JAMIE ROBERTS, Jonathan Davies, George North, Alex Cuthbert - these names trip from the tongue like defenders trip over themselves trying to deal with their sheer size and weight.

Roberts, 25, is 6'4" and 17st 4lbs. North, 19, is 6'4" and 16st 5lbs. Cuthbert, 21, is 6'6" and 16st 5lbs. Davies, 23, is 6'1" and 16st 3lbs. They all have youth, speed and power. North has the added X Factor of unusual footwork and subtle hand skills for such a big man.

Does Irish rugby need to follow this example as the modern day back dwarfs the old-time forward?

"These Welsh backs are big. They are also very good. It wouldn't count for anything if they weren't so good," said Leinster assistant coach Richie Murphy. "I suppose you could say a big good man is better than a small good man. We put out our best players to play a game of rugby that we want to play. That is the key for us."

While coach Declan Kidney has opted for skill over size, there are a select few super-sized Irish backs approaching the end of, moving into the prime of and starting out on the road of their careers.


Age: 30

Height: 6'2"

Weight: 16st 5lbs

Munster have already signalled their intent to follow the trend of bruising big centres by confirming the pre-contract signings of Northampton Saint Downey and All Black Casey Laulala to bolster their midfield for next season.

Downey has long been heralded in England and ignored by Ireland. He bounced around from Leinster to Munster to Connacht to Italian club Calvisano before finding his true home at Franklin's Gardens.

Since then, he has played 137 times as their inside centre bulwark in defence and their gain-line breaker from crash balls up the middle.

With game time has come a wider array of skills and a clear knowledge of what is expected of him from Jim Mallinder at the Saints.

Whether his straight-forward style of combat will work at Munster is open to question. If it does, he might just sneak into international contention as Gordon D'Arcy moves towards the end of his career.


Age: 22

Height: 6'4"

Weight: 17 st

The Meath man is your prototypical Wales centre from the Gaelic games nursery St Pat's in Navan - he's a brother of Meath forward Joe.

He is a specialist inside centre, like Downey, just bigger, not necessarily better. He has not been able to find his feet at senior rugby, where he has played three times for Leinster, due to a dreadful run of injuries.

Sheridan gathered eight Ireland Youths caps for his country and eight Leinster Youths caps for his province in building a fierce reputation as a massive man who guaranteed the gain line.

There was definite progression in the form of 16 Ireland U20 caps over two seasons and this was supposed to be his breakout season.

This theory was binned in August when he suffered a serious knee ligament injury that has seen him sidelined since. He is due to return in one month.


Age: 18

Height: 6'5"

Weight: 16st 3lbs

The Ulster Academy centre started out his rugby life at Junior Club Clogher Valley, moving to Campbell College to win an Ulster Schools Senior Cup title in his last year. He will only turn 19 next month.

Farrell was outstanding in the outside centre slot for Ireland against France in the U20 Six Nations Stade des Alpes in Grenoble on Saturday.

What separates Farrell from others is his natural offloading game. He has soft hands and usually makes it easy for the receiver to clutch his one-handed passes.

He twice almost created tries with sumptuously considered deliveries to Leinster's Conor Gilsenan and Munster's JJ Hanrahan on Saturday.

It has been said that he is not an outside centre because he doesn't have grease-lightening pace.

He has shown for the U18 European champion Ireland Schools last Easter and for Ireland on Saturday that he covers the grass deceptively fast.

Coming from a Junior club, he will improve quickly and could easily grow to a 17-stone centre with the skills set of a far smaller man. He is an exciting prospect with another year to go at the U20 age grade.

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