In today’s edition of ‘Starting XVII’, we focus on Ireland.
There was much uproar surrounding their treatment at the last World Cup, as the group system robbed them of a spot in the knockout stages despite the fact they had won more games than two of the countries who did make it through.
That system been rectified for 2021, though, so if they can put in similar performances against group rivals New Zealand, Lebanon and Jamaica, they could mount a serious challenge against some of the tournament big hitters.
Here’s how we think they’ll line up…
Fullback – Gareth O’Brien
O’Brien is yet to make his international bow but was included in Ireland’s extended squad for the 2017 World Cup qualifiers. His stance on being called-up is unknown but he’d certainly provide quality competition for veteran Scott Grix. As a former halfback, he has an excellent running and passing game, and has been one of the stars of Toronto’s team in the past couple of years.
Wingers – Liam Kay and Ethan Ryan
Kay has spent the past four seasons with Toronto, being an integral part of the squad since their inception, after previous spells with Wakefield, Doncaster and Leigh. His scoring record speaks for itself, with 149 tries in 154 career games, including three in three for Ireland at the last World Cup. Before Hull KR coach Tony Smith snapped Ryan up ahead of the 2020 season, he was widely regarded as one of the hottest prospects outside of Super League, constantly dazzling Bradford fans with his athleticism and acrobatic finishing. He’s already given his new supporters a taste of what he’s capable of with a try on debut against Wigan and, with game time, could become one of the competition’s most dangerous wingers.
Centres – James Bentley and Toby King
St Helens youngster Bentley was key for Ireland throughout qualifying, scoring two tries in five games since his debut in 2018. The 23-year-old has started to work his way into regular contention at Saints, making four appearances under Kristian Woolf so far this season. King has made just one solitary appearance for the Irish, coming during the 2017 World Cup qualifiers. He’s since played twice for the England Knights but has struggled to break into the senior England squad, with the likes of Oliver Gildart, Mark Percival, Reece Lyne, Harry Newman and Josh Griffin all now above him in the pecking order. He could, therefore, be tempted to return to the Wolfhounds’ fold and would add significant quality to the outside backs.
Halves – Riley Dean and Marc Sneyd
Dean is another player yet to make an Ireland appearance but is almost guaranteed a call-up if he continues to fulfil his potential. He debuted for Warrington last year aged 17 and didn’t look out of place, helping organise their attack and absorbing everything thrown at him in defence. Sneyd almost played at the 2013 World Cup, but a paperwork issue robbed him of the chance to make his debut. He’s not had a sniff of international rugby since but, as one of Super League’s most dependable halfbacks, is a quality option for Stuart Littler to have. The likes of Hull KR’s Joe Keyes and Leigh’s Gregg McNally are among the other quality options.
Props – Kyle Amor and Brad Singleton
It’s almost a lottery as to who will be picked in the forwards, as there are plenty of top players available. Warrington’s Joe Philbin would be an obvious option but has a very good chance of making the England team instead. With that in mind, experienced Super League pair Amor and Singleton get the nod. Both are aggressive, tough props with over 500 games-worth of experience between them.
Hooker – Michael McIlorum
The ex-Wigan man is now based in France with Catalans and has played a huge part for Steve McNamara’s side in the past two years. He was influential as the Dragons’ won their first major trophy – the Challenge Cup – in 2018, with his darting runs and assertive defence proving as effective as it has done throughout his career.
Second Rowers – Ben Currie and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook
Similarly to Philbin, Currie is a chance of making the England squad but has several other back rowers in front of him. Either way, it’s safe to say he’d have a greater impact playing for the Irish. Despite several injuries throughout his career, the 25-year-old has managed to rack up over 150 appearances for Warrington, taunting defences with his deceptive pace and handling skills. Saints forward McCarthy-Scarsbrook opts for a more direct approach and has become a fan favourite at Saints due to his infectious enthusiasm. He wears his heart on his sleeve and will back himself in every challenge.
Loose Forward – Tyrone McCarthy
McCarthy will lead the side in the middle of the park in what will be his third World Cup. The 31-year-old has picked up the sixth-most number of caps for the nation and, following Liam Finn’s retirement, will likely be named captain.
Subs – Rob Mulhern, Oliver Roberts, Anthony Mullally, Liam Byrne
Such is the depth in the forwards, it’s tough to choose just four players for the bench. The quartet we’ve gone with, though, have plenty of pedigree to give coach Littler some quality rotation options. Aply named ‘Vegan Warrior’ Mullally has constantly performed at Super League level, with his size and strong leg drive proving handy for the likes of Huddersfield, Leeds and currently Toronto. Back rower Roberts has seen himself fall down the pecking order at the Giants this year but the determined back rower is reigniting his season with Salford, while Mulhern is holding the fort in the pack for Hull KR. Finally, Wigan utility forward Byrne is one several promising youngsters coming through the Warriors’ system and has already shown what he’s capable of at international level, having picked up five caps. Also keep an eye out for Ballbriggen-born Huddersfield prop Ronan Michael, who is currently spending a season developing his game with Canberra Raiders in Australia.