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Gerry Thornley: Ireland used to have plenty waiting in the wings, but it’s not clear who can step in for Mack Hansen

The race is on to take a starting position on the Irish wing, but it’s been a quarter of a century since there’s been so much uncertainty about the options

Back in the summer of 1999, the Sydney-born and reared Matt Mostyn was parachuted into the Irish team to make his Test debut in Brisbane against his native Australia to much mirth among some of the home media in the build-up to the Wallabies’ 46-10 win.

The 24-year-old had been granted an Irish passport by the Australian authorities through documented proof that his mother’s father hailed from Aughnacloy in Co Tyrone. The following August, in Ireland’s only warm-up match before the 1999 World Cup, Mostyn marked his home debut by scoring three tries in a 32-24 win over Argentina.

He was duly included as a relatively surprising selection among one of just four outside backs (Justin Bishop, James Topping and Conor O’Shea were the others) in Warren Gatland’s 30-man squad and went on to start all four of Ireland’s games at the 1999 World Cup. The play-off defeat by Argentina in Lens was his sixth and final cap, although he would go on to play for the Ireland Sevens team and finished his career with Connacht.

In the ensuing five World Cups, Ireland picked a total of 18 different outside backs, all of whom were home-grown, indigenous players with the exception of Brian Carney, the Cork-born rugby league winger who switched codes to play two seasons for Munster. He was included in Ireland’s doomed 2007 World Cup campaign although little or no blame could be attached to him, as none of his three caps came in that tournament.


Among the other 17 were a host of high-achieving wingers such as Keith Earls, Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Trimble, as well as Girvan Dempsey and Geordan Murphy, all of whom are among Ireland’s top 10 international try scorers of all time.

Yet where have their successors gone? Why has this production line stuttered?

Before the last World Cup, James Lowe and Mack Hansen had become nailed on starters on their respective wings. Lowe, a New Zealand-born winger who qualified through the then three-year residency ruling, provides an amalgam of offloading, kicking, carrying and finishing unrivalled by any other Irish winger. Similarly, Andy Farrell was vindicated after waiting little time in drafting the X factor of the Australian-born Hansen, whose mother is Irish, into the squad.

Each are adept as the kind of creative, ball-playing, auxiliary playmakers that Farrell likes to have in his attacking mix, and their only rivals in France were the 36-year-old Earls - playing in his fourth World Cup – and Jimmy O’Brien, who was playing in his first. Not unlike Hansen, O’Brien is as much a centre/full-back as he is a specialist winger.

On foot of Monday’s gloomy injury updates from the provinces, Hansen and O’Brien have been ruled out of the upcoming Six Nations. So, with Earls having followed Andrew Conway into retirement, suddenly only Lowe (who hasn’t played since the World Cup) and full-back Hugo Keenan are available of the quintet of outside backs that went to the World Cup.

Of course, there was always going to be something of a transitional period at the start of a new World Cup cycle. When next week’s Irish squad is announced it will feature a new outhalf and new captain in the first Six Nations without Johnny Sexton since 2009, and there is liable to be a further changing of the guard among the leadership group over the next little while.

Yet rarely has the cupboard of outside backs, and wingers especially, seemed so bare going into a Six Nations campaign or at the outset of a World Cup, and certainly not since Mostyn’s time.

True to type, Farrell will assuredly embrace all of this as an opportunity to delve into Ireland’s depth chart of wingers. Strictly on the basis of the players who just missed out on the World Cup squad, Jacob Stockdale is the next winger in line for inclusion, and he has shown signs of a further return to his attacking best, although defensive issues remain a concern.

However, while Stockdale seems likely to be included in the squad, he is competing essentially on the left-wing with Lowe, who is likely to have two Champions Cup games for Leinster against Stade Français and Leicester to rediscover form and fitness.

Opportunity is thus more likely to knock for those equipped to fill the vacancy on the right wing created by the misfortune that has befallen Hansen – another victim, like Jack O’Donoghue, of what seemed to be an illegal clearout – and also O’Brien.

As things stand, the man most likely is probably Calvin Nash. The 26-year-old Munster wing has carried his form of last season into this and, having made his Test debut in the World Cup warm-up win over Italy, was included in Ireland’s expanded training squad for France 2023. Nash was also on the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa, so clearly has credit in the bank.

He looks a more favoured option than two other 26-year-olds, who, if not quite forgotten, have seemingly fallen off the Irish radar, namely Robert Baloucoune and Jordan Larmour. Baloucoune won the last of his four caps in November 2022 and seems to have,suffered from being stationed on the right wing, out of the game and not contributing enough across the line, as well as from injuries in recent times.

Nor has he been hitting the heights associated with a winger who is the best finisher in Irish rugby (one try in nine starts this season) but he is a good defender and strong in the air, and a big game against Toulouse this Saturday would be timely.

Similarly, Larmour hasn’t been tearing it up so far this season, scoring three tries in eight games, but the same applies for him in the expectation that he starts for Leinster in their marquee Aviva Stadium game against Stade Français.

Longer term, Tommy O’Brien must have eyes on the Ireland 14 jersey but in any event the race is on now.