THE BEST TEAMS usually have at least one great lock. It’s not the most glamorous position – although there are some glamorous locks – but second rows can often have the decisive say in games.
Players in other positions might grab more headlines but the locks are the ones who allow them to thrive. Key to the lineout, scrum, and maul, they also have to tackle and carry as busily as anyone. They’re expected to smash rucks, win restarts, and nowadays they have to play accurate passes and make good decisions on the ball too.
So if you want to win trophies, you’d better have excellent locks.
Andy Farrell’s Ireland have three proven, experienced second row operators in James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, and Iain Henderson, who have been the frontline trio whenever available in recent years.
Excitingly for Farrell, there is another crop of dynamic, young, agile, and skillful locks emerging for the Irish provinces, with several of them clearly having the potential to make an impression at Test level. 22-year-old Joe McCarthy has already done that, featuring at the recent World Cup.
It’s worth noting here that a traditional second row is made up of two kinds of locks.
One is heavier, stronger tighthead lock who packs down on that side of the scrum, drives the maul, makes carries and tackles in tight channels, and generally slugs away in the dark spaces.
The other is the lineout leader and the strategist who scrummages on the left-hand side, often taller and less bulky, but more mobile and slicker with their handling. These are stereotypes that ring true in many teams even today but the best teams have locks who blur the lines between those two roles.
- James Ryan [age 27]
- Ross Molony 
- Joe McCarthy 
- Brian Deeny 
- Diarmuid Mangan 
- Conor O’Tighearnaigh 
Leinster co-captain James Ryan.
Ryan has been a central figure for Ireland pretty much since his debut in 2017, breaking into the starting team in time for the 2018 Grand Slam. Five years on, he played every minute of the 2023 Grand Slam success.
The Leinster man missed the World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand due to injury, having been dropped to the bench for the final pool game against Scotland, with Henderson taking his starting place, but Ryan will obviously be key going forward.
He is still only 27 and is among the candidates to succeed Sexton as Ireland’s captain. Ryan missed out on selection for the 2021 Lions tour, so being part of the trip to Australia in 2025 is likely to be among his aims.
Ryan is Leinster’s new co-captain and he’s the primary lineout caller for province and country.
Ross Molony has been in Ireland training squads under Farrell but hasn’t been capped, although he featured for Ireland A last year against the All Blacks XV. Like Ryan, the intelligent lock is a lineout caller while his slick passing skills are another strength.
Leinster have often paired Ryan and Molony together for big games despite their similarities, with that combination starting the two Champions Cup finals against La Rochelle in recent seasons.
McCarthy is now the coming force, however, and his sheer dynamism is hard to miss even as he continues to work on his discipline. The destructive 22-year-old is mobile and athletic to go along with his size, while he’s also capable of throwing nice passes and offloads. Farrell and his Ireland coaches are excited about McCarthy’s potential as a tighthead lock.
Leinster also have the South Africa international Jason Jenkins in their stocks. The former Munster man made an excellent start to life with the province last season but an injury stopped his momentum and he will feel he has a point to prove as a heavy tighthead lock.
The 6ft 6ins Wexford man Brian Deeny has earned 16 senior appearances for Leinster so far and the fact that he was part of the Emerging Ireland tour last year shows that the Irish coaches were keen to get a closer look at his skills, which include a strong lineout game.
The Leinster academy includes two fine prospects in Conor O’Tighearnaigh and Diarmuid Mangan, the latter of whom may be more likely to push on as a blindside flanker. The 6ft 7ins lineout specialist O’Tighearnaigh has already made his senior debut for Leinster, while the confrontational 6ft 4ins Mangan will hope to follow suit soon.
Ireland international Ryan Baird is another good option in the second row for Leinster but he has been playing his rugby at blindside flanker in the past two seasons, both with province and country. Aged only 24, he could still be a second row in the long-term, but his explosive qualities are well suited to the number six shirt.
Senior back row Alex Soroka has also played in the second row for the Ireland U20s and Leinster.
- Tadhg Beirne 
- Fineen Wycherley 
- Tom Ahern 
- Cian Hurley 
- Edwin Edogbo 
- Evan O’Connell 
Munster second row Edwin Edogbo.
Munster currently have two NIQ locks in their senior squad in World Cup-winning Springboks RG Snyman and Jean Kleyn, although Synman will leave at the end of the season as Kleyn stays on.
Tadhg Beirne is the leading star in this department and has been a highly influential figure for Ireland in Farrell’s time as head coach.
6ft 6ins Beirne, who can also play at blindside flanker, has become Munster’s main lineout caller in recent seasons, adding another skill to his already extensive repertoire. Still only 31, he is among the contenders to succeed Peter O’Mahony as Munster captain and will continue to be an important player for Ireland.
The 25-year-old Fineen Wycherley has been capped by Ireland once, coming off the bench against the US in the summer of 2021 but hasn’t been able to force his way into the reckoning more recently. The 6ft 5ins lock is seen as a mature figure within the Munster group and already has more than 100 appearances for the province.
There is huge excitement among Munster fans about the potential of 23-year-old Tom Ahern and 20-year-old Edwin Edogbo, who is still in the province’s academy.
6ft 9ins Ahern started at blindside flanker for the first time against Leinster last weekend and he’s a seriously quick athlete with explosive jumping power. He has strong offloading instincts too and seems like an ideal long-term locking partners for 6ft 5ins Edogbo, who is of a heavier build that is more suited to the nitty-gritty duties of a tighthead lock.
The 122kg Edogbo hasn’t been scrummaging on the tighthead side of the scrum for Munster but he brings clear power to close-quarters exchanges and is skillful too. Ahern was part of last year’s Emerging Ireland tour and the Irish coaches will surely have been impressed with Edogbo’s emergence.
Munster have 23-year-old Cian Hurley in their senior squad too but his progress has been put on hold by an ankle/Achilles injury and he won’t return until early next year.
Along with Edogbo, Munster’s academy includes the 6ft 7ins Evan O’Connell, who was part of the excellent Ireland U20s set-up this year, playing his part in their Grand Slam success and the run to the World Cup final.
Munster number eight Gavin Coombes, who turns 26 next month, has also played in the second row for Munster, making a start there as recently as March 2022. He was also capped by the Ireland U20s in the second row.
- Iain Henderson 
- Alan O’Connor 
- Kieran Treadwell 
- Cormac Izuchukwu 
- Harry Sheridan 
- Joe Hopes 
- Charlie Irvine 
Ulster captain Iain Henderson.
Henderson has been around for such a long time that it would be easy to think he’s older than 31. He showed some strong form at the World Cup to push into the starting side for Ireland’s final pool game against Scotland and can justifiably feel he still has some of his best rugby ahead of him.
On a central IRFU contract through to 2025, the 6ft 6ins Henderson is another who could be in the Ireland captaincy mix, although he has often been third in line behind Beirne and Ryan in the second row in recent seasons.
He’s the Ulster captain and lineout leader, so is key to their hopes of making more of a play-off dent this season, while the ultra-consistent Alan O’Connor also remains a crucial figure. The Skerries man hasn’t had a chance with Farrell’s Ireland but brings physicality and leadership for Ulster.
His provincial team-mate Kieran Treadwell has featured with Ireland under Farrell but missed out on a World Cup place. The 28-year-old will be aiming to ensure he’s in Ulster’s first-choice team for every big game and to apply his undoubted athleticism on a more consistent basis if he’s to add to his 11 caps.
The powerful Cormac Izuchukwu is one to watch in the second row if he can get a good run of games. Having taken a somewhat unique route into the professional game, the 6ft 7ins lock is still polishing his game off but has obvious power and offloading ability. He was on the Emerging Ireland tour last year and now hopes to kick on with Ulster.
The abrasive Harry Sheridan has forced his way into the senior set-up last season too, having been an Ireland U20 international in 2021. The 6ft 5ins lock made great leaps of progress with Trinity in the AIL and can also play at blindside flanker.
Ulster have two Ireland U20 internationals in their academy, with Joe Hopes and Charlie Irvine hopeful of breaking into the senior squad. Hopes recently made his senior debut, while Irvine impressed in two starts during this year’s U20 World Cup.
Back row Matty Rea recently had a start in the in the second row for Ulster.
- Gavin Thornbury 
- Niall Murray 
- Oisin Dowling 
- Joe Joyce 
- Darragh Murray 
Connacht’s Gavin Thornbury is still sidelined.
Now 30, Gavin Thornbury could be forgiven for wondering what might have been in recent years if it wasn’t for unfortunate injuries. Even as recently as last autumn, the 6ft 8ins second row was playing for the Ireland A team but soon suffered a serious knee injury that he is still on the comeback trail from now.
When he’s fit, the former Leinster man is Connacht’s lineout leader and a physical presence around the pitch, so his return will be important for the westerners during this campaign.
In his absence, the impressive 24-year-old Niall Murray has emerged forcefully and become a lineout specialist, as well as a menace with his pace when space opens up. His younger brother, 22-year-old Darragh, has now broken into the senior squad too and has 13 caps. He’s also a defensive lineout menace and is taller and heavier than his brother. Connacht fans are certainly excited about them developing as a second row combination.
Former Ireland U20 international Joe Joyce joined from Bristol during the summer, having played more than 160 times for the Bears. Listed at 119kg, he’s the heaviest lock in the Connacht squad and has made a strong start to life with Peter Wilkins’ side. Joyce was in the same Ireland U20s squad as the likes of Garry Ringrose and Jack O’Donoghue back in 2014.
Oisín Dowling made the move to Connacht from his native Leinster in 2020 and has become a frequent starter in the second row. The 26-year-old is now one cap off the 50 mark and has impressed with his set-piece work, combativeness, and jackal skills at the breakdown. Dowling made his first start at blindside flanker last weekend.
Back row Cian Prendergast could also play lock for Connacht if required. They don’t currently have any second rows listed in their academy.
For earlier articles in this series, click the links below.
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