With the IRB Junior World Championship kicking off on Monday, we thought we’d come back to the 5 Up article that was written in the aftermath of the U20 Six Nations.
Both Ulster outhalf Paddy Jackson and Connacht fullback Shane Layden have dropped out of the squad, which is a real disappointment. The Mole wasn’t all that taken with Jackson during the U20 Six Nations and didn’t include him in the original article. Since then he went on to start a Heineken Cup semi-final and final … hmmm. Nice judgment call! However, he was sidelined in the former with careful parenting by Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Wallace, the two experienced pros on either side of him, and patently out of his depth in the latter.
A tournament like this would have seemed the ideal way to get back on the horse, but Ulster Rugby have deemed it prudent to pull him out of itso that he can concentrate on preparing for the next season of provincial rugby. The argument in favour of that move is that the JWC is a brutal tournament with four-day turnarounds that demands a huge amount from the players and leaves them physically exhausted; the argument against is that he’d have ample opportunity to rebuild his confidence playing age-group rugby before he moved permanently into senior level.
Layden is another big loss, having proved himself a natural try-scorer in the U20 Six Nations with five-pointers against Wales, Italy and Scotland. While Jackson captained the side, The Mole felt that the young Connacht man was a natural leader along with being the most dangerous attacking weapon in the backline. Mikey Sherlock of Leinster will likely step in for him in the No15 jersey; Sherlock was talented enough to start four games in last year’s Six Nations as an U19, so the signs point to there being less of a drop-off in ability than one might otherwise expect.
One player that wasn’t featured in the original article [because he missed almost the entire season recuperating from surgery] is New Ross tighthead phenom Tadhg Furlong. Furlong played in last year’s edition of the tournament as an 18-year old, and was consistently one of Ireland’s best players – no small ask, because he started five games in seventeen days. He was a revelation, having not featured in a starting lineup in that year’s Six Nations. The Mole has only seen one Irish prop in the last decade who has shown anything like Furlong’s potential in underage rugby: Cian Healy. It might be a little rash to say on the back of those five games, but The Mole believes that Furlong has the build, the strength, the toughness, the skillset and the intelligence to be a long-term international tighthead.
Iain Henderson started as a blindside against Munster in Thomond Park in an understrength Ulster team and scored an absolute cracker of a try, showcasing his athleticism.
The young lad has prototypical size, and while he’s nowhere near 20-year old southern hemisphere mutants Brodie Retallick and Eben Etzebeth, for an Irish second row he’s a long way ahead of the curve in terms of physical development. Most Irish U20 locks struggle to break the 105kg mark, while Henderson is already hitting 115kg … and as the clip above shows, he can do something with it. There’s absolutely no harm playing blindside as a young second-row – very, very few 20-year olds are powerful enough to lock a senior scrum, and it’s better to get the time on the pitch and feel the pace and the physicality of professional rugby than sit in the stands and hold on to your second-row status for the Olympics.
Luke McGrath stood in for the injured John Cooney for Leinster ‘A’ in the cracking British & Irish cup semi-final against Munster ‘A’ that went into extra time in the RDS on Good Friday. The youngster stepped up to the mark well and bagged a try, outplaying his 26-year old opposite number Duncan Williams for most of the game. With another season at this level in front of him, and another very capable scrum-half in Kieron Marmion in the squad for the tournament, The Mole thinks it likely that we’ll see both No9s used in the way that Leinster have used Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss over the last two seasons.
EDIT: McGrath also made his senior Leinster debut this year, coming off the bench to replace Eoin Reddan for eleven minutes against Newport Gwent Dragons in early May.
JJ Hanrahan also started that semi-final but struggled to make an impact. Oddly enough, it seemed that the game never really came his way in attack, even as a No12. While he defended solidly, Leinster lost two inside centers in quick succession and he wasn’t able to capitalize on a disrupted backline defense. That’s just one game, however. At age-group level he has consistently looked skillful, rounded and astute, and The Mole expects more of the same from him. Having played a lot of rugby at outhalf at club level, it will be interesting to see if he’s asked to play in the No10 during the competition – he’s got the all-round game and the judgment to do it, but it’s difficult to tell if it’d be the best thing for him at this stage of his development.
Conor Gilsenan featured in four of Leinster’s British & Irish Cup games before being squeezed out of the semi-final line-up by the returning Dominic Ryan. While he played most of the games of the U20 Six Nations at blindside to accommodate Connacht’s Aaron Conneely on the openside, The Mole feels that his future lies in the No7 jersey. I’d expect to see an all-Leinster backrow of Gilsenan/Coghlan/Conan in at least one of the games.
Ireland kick off their campaign against hosts South Africa on Monday afternoon, and to keep up to date, check out the IRB’s comprehensive website.