With Rory Best officially retiring from playing rugby last weekend, and the Pro 14 regular season and Champions Cup pool stages a third of the way through, now feels like a good time to start considering who will replace Best in the number 2 jersey for Ireland. This article will take a look at some statistics we have compiled for each provinces first and second choice hookers this season and try to make sense of the numbers.
In what is the most visible metric for a hookers performance, Kevin O’Byrne has comfortably been the most accurate lineout thrower in Ireland this season, with only a crooked throw against Edinburgh last weekend stopping him from bettering his 97% lineout throw success.
Below is a great example of O’Byrne’s ability to throw the ball to a jumper at the apex of their jump.
With a trend appearing to be developing amongst second choice provincial hookers, Ulster’s Adam McBurney and Leinster’s James Tracy complete what is a surprising top three considering that only Tracy has senior international experience amongst the trio.
However, when we look at these stats in context and start to consider each hookers ability to hit targets across the lineout, while O’Byrne still shows decent variety in his throwing, the likes of Leinster duo of Tracy and McBurney are reliable but rarely throw to the tail with 0.4 and 0 of their throws going to the last jumper respectively.
By comparison, Irish international Rob Herring only just about makes it into the top 5 on throwing accuracy but displays the most varied throwing across the lineout of the hookers statistically.
Even though the scrum is very much a pack effort, and penalties are usually the result of a prop’s indiscretion, a hooker’s ability to stay connected to his props and secure the ball is vital in the set-piece.
Connacht’s Tom McCartney come across strongly in this category. McCartney in particular has shown an ability to generate penalties on his own possession (1.3 per game) this season.
In an example above of the hooker’s scrummaging, McCartney sets the Connacht front row as low as possible. This means that Dragon’s loosehead can’t get under his opposition tighthead, is forced to fold and collapses the scrum to concede a penalty.
Though not as effective as McCartney when the opposition has possession, Rob Herring has also shown an ability to consistently win scrum penalties on his own possession, particularly in the higher profile games against the likes of Munster (3) and Bath (2). In the clip above, Herring does a good job of keeping the shoulder gap between himself and teammate Marty Moore tight, allowing them pop the Munster front row to win the penalty.
The one area where Tom McCartney falls down in at the scrum is losing possession against the head, a part of the game that his Connacht teammate Shane Delahunt has been impeccable in this season. For a team who like to use their backline as often as possible, Delahunt’s ability to hook the ball back cleanly has been invaluable for the Western province.
Ulster’s Adam McBurney has been similarly effective, showing solidity at both scrum and lineout to provide a solid platform for his team to attack from.
Although his work at set piece is still developing, it’s with the ball in hand that Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher really starts to show his potential as a possible Ireland hooker.
Leading the position in metres gained with an impressive 18.1 per game, Kelleher has shown a combination of pace and power on his way to scoring 7 tries in 7 games this season for his province.
Amongst the competition, Kevin O’Byrne has again showed well, exhibiting an excellent awareness of space with the ball in hand in particular.
Niall Scannell has also shown signs of the high work-rate that Joe Schmidt used to value as Irish coach, averaging 10.7 carries per game in his three appearances since returning from the World Cup.
When it comes to defensive statistics this season, Tom McCartney is the standout Irish-qualified player in the hooker position. Averaging 11.7 tackles per match over 7 games, McCartney has made 55 tackles this season while missing none.
Moreover, McCartney’s also developed a habit of winning ruck turnovers, with 4 in the Pro 14 this season and another important effort above to get Connacht on the scoreboard in their win against Montpellier in the Champions Cup.
Of the younger options in the hooker position, Leinster’s 21-year-old Ronan Kelleher has shown his ability to dig in defensively in recent games, averaging 8.4 tackles per game.
Rob Herring (8.3 tackles per game) has also exhibited a defensive flexibility that is unusual for a hooker, as evidenced by this defensive effort to track down England centre Jonathan Joseph in the dying moments of Ulster’s game against Bath in Europe.
While there is more to playing the hooker position than the statistics presented in this piece, it’s fair to say that with internationals such as Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin away at the World Cup, a number of hookers have put their hands up to fill Rory Best’s spot in future Irish squads. Whether it’s Best’s old club-mate in Rob Herring, a younger uncapped player such as Ronan Kelleher or Kevin O’Byrne, or a surprise inclusion such as the experienced Tom McCartney, the selection race for the three hooker positions in Andy Farrell’s first Ireland squad will be a contest well worth watching.
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