Irish rugby’s top five worst selection decisions


Even now, 36 years later, and allowing for the preposterous selection system of the time, the decision to axe Phil Orr during the 1986 Five Nations defies belief.

Orr was one of Irish rugby’s leading lights – a Lion, a two-time Triple Crown winner and a prop who had gained universal respect around the rugby world.

Phil Orr. Pic: INPHO/Bob Thomas

Although in his mid-30s, the Old Wesley loosehead’s place was not up for debate – until Ireland got a drubbing in Paris in their opening Five Nations match in 1986. That was Orr’s 49th consecutive cap, going back to 1976, and Lansdowne Road was poised to acknowledge one of its favorite sons for his 50th when they took on Wales next up.

In an era of meagre fixture lists, 50 caps was a massive deal – 50 consecutive caps even more so – yet the Ireland selection committee, in their infinite wisdom, decided to make Orr a scapegoat for Paris.

He was in for the unknown Paul Kennedy from London Irish. Kennedy struggled as Wales took out Ireland in Dublin and then had a nightmare in Twickenham as England’s No8 Dean Richards scored two pushover tries, with a penalty try awarded when the Irish scrum again moonwalked backwards.

Orr was promptly restored and ended up with 58 Ireland caps, Kennedy was never seen again in an Ireland jersey.

Declan Kidney. Pic: Getty


Kidney is one of the most astute minds in the game but his decision to select Paddy Wallace for the third Test against New Zealand in 2012 was wrong on every level.

Gordon D’Arcy’s injury created a midfield dilemma but kidney had options. Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave were all available, or he could have played Johnny Sexton outside Ronan O’Gara, who had worked brilliantly against Australia in the World Cup the previous year.

Instead, he called up Paddy Wallace off the beach in Portugal. It was a big blow to squad morale with preparations hampered by the three days it took Wallace to get there (fog adding an extra 24 hours). Then came the 60-0 rout and ‘Wallacegate’ was entered into Irish rugby infamy.


In terms of World Cup brain-farts, Jean Kleyn is to Ireland what Sam Burgess was to England in 2015.

Jean Kleyn is to Ireland what Sam Burgess was to England in 2015. Pic: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Devin Toner had been a mainstay for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland through a period of sustained achievement following the Kiwi’s elevation to the Ireland job in 2013.

His place as Ireland’s aerial commander in chief seemed assured for the 2019 World Cup in Japan regardless of the impending residency qualification of Kleyn.

However, Ireland, unsettled by patchy form, clearly saw the giant South African as a saviour figure and hastened him into the side days after he became eligible – and suddenly Toner was out of the World Cup.

Not only was it insulting to the concept of national representation (as all cynical residency qualifications are), it was also incredibly ill-judged on a tactical and cultural level, as Toner was extremely popular within the squad.

A disgraceful decision with utterly predictable consequences as Kleyn made no impact and Ireland flamed out on the big stage yet again.

Heineken European Cup Rugby. Pontypridd vs Munster. Munster’s Alan Quinlan runs in to score a try. Pic: INPHO/Tom Honan


Ireland’s nightmare at the 2007 World Cup has been well chronicled.

One of the most talented groups of Irish players in history got their preparations horrendously wrong, but the biggest indictment against coach Eddie O’Sullivan was his failure to freshen up the side during the tournament when it was clear they were in freefall.

Alan Quinlan was, arguably, in the form of his career at the time and there was a young bull from Ulster named Stephen Ferris who was ripping up trees – yet those in-form backrows were kept on tackle-bag duty as the frontliners implode their way towards the departure lounge in Charles De Gaulle airport.


Considering his exceptional time at the helm of the national team, it is remarkable how badly Joe Schmidt got it wrong for his two World Cups.

Ireland Rugby Training, Yumeria Sports Grounds, Iwata, Shizuoka, Japan 26/9/2019 Tadhg Beirne and head coach Joe Schmidt. Pic: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

In 2015, shorn of a clutch of his frontliners, Schmidt had to get the right mix with what he had left for the quarter-final in Cardiff against Argentina.

When the team was announced midweek, it looked completely unsuited for the task against a meaty and mean Puma pack – but those who expressed concern were drowned out by the ‘In Joe We Trust’ gang.

The most glaring error was in the back row, where Schmidt opted for Jordi Murphy at blindside and

Chris Henry at No7. Murphy was a favorite of Schmidt’s and was an excellent openside, but lacked the height and bulk for the No6 role – especially for that quarter-final challenge.

Both Murphy and Henry were willing devotees of the Schmidt system but this was never a day for details rugby, it was a day for demolitions experts. Up against Lavanini, Lobbe, Matera and the rest of the Argentinian beast brigade, Ireland needed bruisers as well as extra height for the lineout – where they badly missed Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony. Donnacha Ryan fitted the bill perfectly as a blindside enforcer, and had plenty of experience in that role, but was named on the bench.

So was Rhys Ruddock, arguably Ireland’s most physical player, superb in his last two starts – wins over Australia and South Africa. When both men came on it was too late – lightweight Ireland had already been blitzed.

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