The idea for the 5 Up series was taken from the Seven Up TV show. We were interested to see how aspiring professional players developed and what factors affected their progress. Five players were chosen: one from each of the provinces and a second, from Leinster, who would have another season at underage level the following year.
With Ulster throwing their end-of-season eggs in the Heineken Cup basket, Henderson was given his starting debut for Ulster at the tail end of the 2012 season in a 8-36 defeat to Munster when he scored a super try. Stephen Ferris’ tendency to injury, along with Robbie Diack being unavailable, allowed Henderson the opportunity to start against Cardiff in September of this season. Henderson took his chance and also filled in the second row with Johan Muller injured at times during the season.
Henderson started all of Ireland’s matches in JWC 2012 as Mike Ruddock’s young charges finished in fifth place after losing out to England at the pool stages. He scored what turned out to be the decisive try against South Africa in Ireland’s game against the hosting Springboks.
To date, Henderson has made five international appearances for Ireland, all off the bench. He got the most game-time against Italy and looked comfortable at that level, repeatedly carrying and making bad ball better due to excellent presentation skills and consistent leg drive. He drove Parisse back off a five metre scrum at the start of the second half before putting in three classic hits where he’d lined up his man perfectly. Hendo picked up a foot injury in this game – a player getting injured with Ireland! – but a scan revealed only soft tissue damage.
Re-reading the original article, I was struck with its muted tones so must have been wary about lauding twenty year olds with little professional experience. The last line of the Henderson piece betrays some of my expectation but I have been surprised with how well he has adopted to higher level rugby. Despite only turning 21 in February, Henderson has never looked out of his depth in any match I’ve seen him in and we have yet to discover his ceiling.
For my money, Henderson’s international future is at second row where his combination of strength and agility make him a very valuable commodity. Ireland have been reasonably well served in the back row over the last fifteen years but have struggled to find an international class tight-head lock. His natural strength marked him out initially at u20 level and as he matures this feature of his game should only increase.
In contrast to some of his peers, Henderson has been fortunate with injury in that he hasn’t suffered anything serious and others’ unavailability has provided him with starting opportunities. Through what has been a steady rise at a young age, Henderson has maintained a remarkably low media profile and one of the few features about him revealed that he had not been a schoolboy superstar – unbelievable! I believe he is the best young Irish forward since Cian Healy and has the potential to be world class for a sustained period of time. Keep watching this space.
Gilsenan started against SA and England in JWC12 match but injured his ankle against England and played no further part in the tournament. That was the only match that Ireland lost in the tournament. Gilsenan was replaced at openside by Jordan Coghlan for the knock out games with Iain Henderson moving to blindside.
In the British & Irish Cup, Gilsenan came on for Leinster A at openside against Jersey, scoring a try, and started against Pontpridd. He shared the seven jersey with Coghlan and Dom Ryan in the A campaign and has yet to start for the senior side.
Gilsenan has recently had a run of games for UCD at blindside as Mark McGroarty seems to have nailed down the openside slot at Belfield. UCD lie second in Division 1B at time of writing after Ballynahinch claimed the title.
McGrath was on the bench for Ireland’s first two JWC12 matches against South Africa and England behind Keiran Marmion. McGrath started against Italy and scored a try.
Marmion was first choice for the remainder of the tournament and upon his return made the Connacht starting jersey his own.
McGrath captained Ireland in the 2013 u20 Six Nations tournament where they went 2-1-2 beating eventual winners England in Dubarry Park.
McGrath has seen very little senior rugby this season with Lansdowne scrum half John Cooney starting at scrum half for Leinster A throughout the B&I Cup and UCD using a range of scrum halves in their AIL campaign with Jamie Glynn getting an extended run in the team after Christmas. McGrath suffered from illness in the 2013 season causing him to miss a chunk of matches. McGrath was selected to start in Leinster A’s win against Bristol in the B&I quarter.
Hanrahan made his competitive debut in October 2012 at Thomond against Zebre in the centre outside Ian Keatley and made his mark with two tries. He had to wait until February 2013 to start again when he again lined up in the centre, this time against Edinburgh and Llanelli.
Hanrahan has played most of his rugby this season with UL Bohs who are at the foot of Division 1A with 5 wins from 16. Hanrahan has played in ten of those games with three wins and Bohs’ record is far better with him on the pitch than otherwise.
It’s interesting to compare Hanrahan, who played centre during the u20 2012 Six Nations outside Paddy Jackson with Jackson himself. Ulster started Jackson against Leinster in April 2012 and since then he has had a good run at the starting berth including an appearance in the Heineken Cup Final. Jackson did not travel to South Africa for the u20 JWC at Ulster’s behest and has since started for Ireland at outhalf. Hanrahan started in Jackson’s absence and played well enough to guide the team to fifth position and earn himself a nomination (one of three) as IRB Junior Player of the Year.
Jackson has been championed at Ulster where Iain Humphreys was jettisoned as a starter having started for Ulster in Thomond in the Heineken Cup quarter final before leaving the club during summer 2012. If Ulster haven’t exactly made Jackson a franchise player – Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa are too prominent for that designation – they have afforded him a lot of opportunity.
While Jackson has been playing for Ireland, Hanrahan has been ploughing a lonely furrow at the foot of Division 1A. Part of the reason for this series was to follow five players in particular during the stage of their career when promise must be translated to achievement. There is a general agreement that those that make it have earned it but there are a few twists in the road along the way.
Hanrahan started at out-half in Munster’s away quarter final win against the Cornish Pirates in the B&I Cup.
Having impressed throughout the underage Six Nations, Layden missed out on the IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa due to a foot injury. He was replaced by Buccs team mate Conor Finn. Peter Nelson of Ulster started against pool games against SA and England before moving to centre against Italy where he scored two tries. Michael Sherlock played against Italy before Nelson returned to full back against England and France.
Layden (born 9/9/92) has mixed appearances for the Connacht Eagles in the B&I Cup and for Buccaneers in Division 1B of the AIL. The emergence of Robbie Henshaw (born 12/6/93) has limited opportunities for anyone else in the Connacht 15 jersey, including former captain Gavin Duffy. The Connacht Eagles finished last in their group winning one game while Buccs are fourth in Division 1B.
Layden’s last year has been plagued with injury including foot injuries and hamstring tears.
From a personal point of view, this has been a very interesting series. The themes that struck me were the impact of injuries at the early stage of a players’ career, the competition provided for a spot in your squad and the importance of a promoter who is prepared to give you a chance.
I think Iain Henderson is a smashing rugby player who benefitted greatly from game time with Ulster. I don’t think he’d have got the same opportunity had Stephen Ferris, Robbie Diack, Nick Williams and Johann Muller been fit at various stages of the season. I think he would have played and contributed as a squad player but the experience he gained of pro rugby stood to him and he keeps improving. Ulster have benefitted and Henderson’s progress suggests that one of the prerequisites of a top provincial coach is the willingness to give young players game time and the ability to maintain competitiveness while doing so. Joe Schmidt remains the model.
The comparison I have in mind for Henderson is Brodie Retallick, signed from Hawkes Bay by the Chiefs at 20 and a 7 time starter for NZ. There are arguments about the differing physical requirements between the Southern Hemisphere, [aerobic, ball-handling, competitions played one after another] and Northern Hemisphere [set piece based, heavier pitches, season dominated by Six Nations with Heineken Cup spread throughout ] but Retallick is a test All Black so he’s able to mix it. To counter that, Mark Anscombe is a Kiwi coach, and indeed Retallick was one of his JWC winning Baby Blacks, the injuries happened and Henderson took advantage of them.
A member of the Class of ’12 who has been afforded a huge opportunity is Paddy Jackson, championed by Davy Humphreys at Ravenhill and now starting fly-half for Ireland. In your correspondent’s opinion there’s precious little between Jackson and Hanrahan but Jackson now has the experience and neither will get this season again.
These players are illustrative of the Competition for Places meme. While Hanrahan is behind O’Gara and Ian Keatley, Jackson has been given a clear run at the Ulster No10 jersey with Niall O’Connor as the only specialist back up after Iain Humphreys’ move to London Irish. Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Stuart Olding have all filled in at ten at one stage or another but Jackson is the main man. Meanwhile Hanrahan has played for a UL Bohs team that is propping up Division 1A. Sport is seen as meritocratic so if one player is playing for Ireland and the other for his club then the former must be superior. The truth in this matter is more relative than absolute but the confidence gained by having a prominent champion and bountiful opportunity probably makes it self-fulfilling. Hanrahan’s opportunities at Munster will be in a large part dictated by the Chairman of the Board’s contract decision. If O’Gara keeps playing he will get a lot of game time. In that case Hanrahan, and Irish rugby, would be better off if the Currow man was to sign for Ulster and compete with Jackson. However, Hanrahan signed a two-year deal for Munster around Christmas and seems prepared to take his chances/learn from the master/try and knock Radge off his perch. Due to the parochial nature of the game in Ireland that sort of move has not proved popular but those transfers are the sort of talent optimisation that the yet to be appointed “director of operations type-role, equivalent to Rob Andrew in the RFU, that is apparently about to be created within Irish rugby” (sic) may well endorse.
Shane Layden has probably run into traffic at the other end of the age spectrum in the form of Robbie Henshaw. Usually young players who have yet to make an impact are spoken of knowledgably as possessing great potential. When your rival is younger than you then your name doesn’t get mentioned as often! Henshaw has been championed by Elwood and has maintained the full back position even when Gavin Duffy has been fit. I’m a big fan of Gavin Duffy and believe that he has a more rounded skill set than Henshaw but I stand accused of not watching a huge number of Connacht games. Connacht fans out there care to correct me about the merits of Duffy v Henshaw? Because of injury, the matter is academic and Layden has played very little rugby this season.
Conor Gilsenan and Luke McGrath both play for UCD. I am wholly against the premium clubs put on the u20 level in Leinster and I believe that it has been detrimental to participation numbers in Dublin in particular. I believe that UCD were one of the main agitating forces behind its current place in the domestic spectrum and that now the status quo prevails because getting Irish rugby clubs to agree on anything is like trying to herd cats so there is no change. Anyway, I digress, that’s a discussion for another day.
Because UCD can attract so much talent and place such an emphasis on u20 level, their best (underage) players play mainly meaningless fixtures against teams that are unable to match them while improving their weights and walking around Belfield in snazzy training clobber. How Luke McGrath, who has played off the bench for the full Leinster team, benefits from playing at u20s level against guys who have quite possibly been on the sauce the night before is beyond me. Interestingly, Cathal Marsh was McGrath’s half back partner on UCD’s u20 team in 2011-12 but this season is plying his trade with DUFC and getting first team action. Marsh started for Leinster ‘A’ in their B&I Cup quarter final win against Bristol with McGrath at scrum half.
Gilsenan’s appearances, that I am aware of, for UCD’s first team have been at blindside. For a player in Leinster’s academy measuring 1.87m and weighing 96kg, openside is the only position likely as a professional. (By way of comparison: Rhys Ruddock 1.91m, 111kg; Dom Ryan 1.93m, 106kg). Playing at blindside is not the same as openside and Gilsenan needs to play at 7 in order to develop the running lines, breakdown skills and reading of the game required for that position.
Having said all that, McGrath looks well poised to enjoy a professional career. Both Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan turn 33 this year and Reddan’s broken leg provides an opportunity for one of Cooney and McGrath to get some first team exposure. McGrath’s selection ahead of Cooney at half back in the B&I Cup indicates that he is under serious consideration for the bench in Leinster’s remaining games of the 2012-13 season, all of which are important to the club.
I read an interview with a New Zealand playwright years ago where he defined the day he became a man as the day he realised he’d never play for the All Blacks. The corresponding day has yet to arrive for any of the players under review here and Henderson, of course, has already made the grade. The IRFU’s stance on foreign players has changed markedly in recent seasons and presents more opportunities for young Irish talent. However, it also means that provinces won’t be able to bulwark their squad with top class international talent as in years gone by and young players will be required to maintain high standards when international players are unavailable. This is a good thing for Irish rugby in the long run but may involve discomfort for provincial supporters in the interim (imagine, for example, an Ulster with no Pienaar and Afoa) and should benefit the national team in future. We’ve long held the belief that there was no “golden generation” and look forward to the sustained competitiveness of the provincial teams in the seasons to come.