We started the 5 Up Series two years ago. 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.
Henderson earned his first international start on the tour to North America when he was selected at blindside against the USA Eagles. Kevin McLaughlin replaced him for the game against Canada as interim coach Less Kiss made four changes to the pack.
Upon his return Henderson was selected solely as a second row by Ulster coach Mark Anscombe and has not yet made any league starts for Ulster in the back row this season. While injuries benefitted Henderson last year – he stayed fit while others got injured – this year circumstances have changed and Henderson was unfortunate enough to dislocate a toe then pull his hamstring on return. While a dislocated toe is an unusual injury there also seems to be very few hamstring tears in this day and age, particularly to front five forwards.
After a meteoric rise in 2012/13, this season has been a one of consolidation for Hendo. He arrived into the Irish squad in 2012 unheralded to the wider Irish public and earned a number of caps off the bench. However, he has struggled to break through to the next level and become a consistent starter for either province or country due to injuries and competition from others.
The main question concerns his best position as evidenced by his appearances for Ireland in the back row and for Ulster in the second row. However, the feeling is that it is a matter of when he will make it rather than if he will make it and Joe Schmidt selected him to start against the Italians ahead of players with more experience in the back row.
I am still of the opinion that he is more valuable to Ireland as a second row but I have to acknowledge that this will demand a lot of work in set pieces and restrict his ball carrying opportunities. As Henderson matures further he will be able to better handle the role at test level.
Gilsenan has existed under the radar for most Irish rugby fans while building a solid body of work. He finished out the 2012/13 season with UCD by winning promotion to Division 1A and captained Leinster A against Munster A in the B&I Cup semi-final. As an indication of quality, Niall Ronan and CJ Stander started for Munster in that game while Gilsenan was the only member of the Leinster back row to retain his place in the final against Newcastle. Dom Ryan and Jordi Murphy returned for Leinster with Murphy taking over as captain.
Gilsenan captained the Leinster A team in the first two rounds of the 2013/14 B&I Cup and also played for UCD in Division 1A in four of their first five matches. Gilsenan had two starts at blindside and two starts at openside with Collidge as Mark McGroarty, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy have all gained experience there.
Gilsenan is an Academy Player Representative in Leinster’s domestic set up and is currently studying Commerce in UCD over five years rather than the customary three. Gilsenan is the first Irish player the Mole is aware of to switch provincial allegiances during a season as he lined out for Connacht Eagles against Munster A in Dooradoyle in March ‘14. This is a very interesting development as I would guess that he is still under contract to Leinster but his move is facilitated in order to provide more opportunities of game time with Connacht.
Gilsenan is probably more familiar than many of his peers with contract law. With an eye towards life after rugby Gilsenan has engaged Eoin MacNeill from A&L Goodbody as his mentor. MacNeill is described in glowing terms by his employer’s site and is retained by Rory McIlroy in his dispute with former management company Horizon.
It is interesting to note the academic lot of a professional rugby player. Their opportunity to commit time to study is compromised by the training, match and travel load and the decision to gain experience comparable to that of their peers is not possible. Against that, they have access to senior management and a level of recognition unusual for a man in his early 20s.
McGrath made his first Rabo Pro12 start in a 37-19 win against the Ospreys in May 2013 as Eoin Reddan’s injury created an opportunity for the young scrum half.
He captained Ireland at the 2013 JWC as they beat Australia before losing 26-31 vs NZ after putting together a storming come back. A 8-9 loss to hosts France meant Ireland played off for seventh place against Australia, a match they lost 17-28.
McGrath started four out of six pool games in the 2013/14 B&I Cup, where he shared starts with John Cooney, and has also started a number of games for UCD in Division 1A of the All Ireland League.
When we catalogued JJ Hanrahan’s progress last year he had made his bones for Munster but spent most of the season playing for UL Bohs at the foot of Division 1A in the AIL. Hanrahan has progressed again this season but exists in a kind of media perception twilight zone due to peers and predecessors.
When Hanrahan was first cast as one of the inaugural 5 Up Class it was as a first centre, a position that Munster had never satisfactorily filled with a native son. That was after the 2012 U20 Six Nations when Paddy Jackson captained the team from outhalf. With Jackson unable to travel for the 2012 JWC, Hanrahan took centre stage and shone as out half. When he returned to Munster it was to find Ronan O’Gara and Ian Keatley sharing the ten jersey in Rob Penney’s first season. James Downey was rarely injured and added defensive solidity to Munster’s midfield so Hanrahan was afforded only four starts at first centre before finally starting at outhalf against Zebre at Richie Aprile’s house.
Around that same time Paddy Jackson started in the Six Nations for Ireland and Ian Madigan was compiling another try scoring, silverware laden season in preparation for taking over at 10 from Jonny Sexton as the Irish outhalf announced his move to Paris.
Back on the subject of the twilight, there’s a sizable body of Irish rugby supporters who have been waiting for Hanrahan to break through and this season he has. At the time of writing he has started nine out of eighteen league matches for Munster and been hero and villain in the Heineken Cup. Despite this he is still not being considered for the top table in the mainstream media and, consequently, in the rugby dialogue nationwide, based on the premise that Dexy’s establishes much of the conversation with his media utterances:
arguably Schmidt’s other big concern will be developing an understudy to Johnny Sexton, all the more so as the outhalf will be playing in the Top 14 for another season. In this, Schmidt’s hand could be forced this week should the Racing Metro linchpin be ruled out with his hand injury and, at the moment, Paddy Jackson is the understudy in waiting.
There will be further opportunities to rest Sexton and give Jackson and Ian Madigan game time in the two-Test tour to Argentina in June and perhaps in one or two of next November’s series. The elbow room may yet be greater in the 2015 Six Nations given the proximity of the World Cup. However, Ireland are not going to go to the next World Cup with an experienced pair of outhalves.
Do you have to be old enough or good enough? I would always plump for good enough and believe that Hanrahan has the ability to prosper at a high level. To quote Rob Penney, “You can only get experience by getting experience.” and from what he has seen, “JJ’s a good lad. We love him to bits. He’s well over Edinburgh. He came back and had a great match in Glasgow off the back of Edinburgh. He’s a great future. We’re giving him an opportunity to grow, steadily and surely. When he emerges with all his regalia intact and fully fledged he’ll be a great little player.”
Layden’s profile is lower than that of Iain Henderson and JJ Hanrahan but he’s still a draw west of the Shannon as witnessed by his guest appearance at a Lions breakfast in Carrick RFC alongside Victor Costelloe!
Layden’s 2012/13 season was marred by injury and while he hasn’t escaped unscathed this season he has had better luck and has put together a run of games for Buccs and the Connacht Eagles. Starts have come at full back and wing for the Connacht Eagles and also as a second centre for Buccs. My initial impression was that second centre might be the best position for his combination of pace and handling.
The different trajectories of each playing career have continued to make this series one of great interest to me. Despite the introduction of provincial academies and a structured introduction to professional rugby there is a striking variety between different players’ development.
Each of the players under review are still playing. While that may seem an odd and obvious comment, the Mole remembers when the disappearance of underage talent was an annual feature of Irish rugby. My feeling is that the academy structures are of importance here, particularly when players get injured. Instead of falling by the wayside and perhaps not making a representative team at a crucial stage or slacking with rehabilitation when recovering from injury, the professionalism of the academies increases the retention rate of those chosen players.
The academies act as a bridge to the professional game as well as an insurance policy and development structure. When reviewing Gilsenan’s progress it was striking to note that Jordi Murphy played in the B&I Cup Final in 2013, his final year in the academy, and was playing for Ireland in Twickenham a year later. Marty Moore, a fellow 2013 graduate, did not even start the B&I Cup Final!
Shane Layden graduates from the Connacht Academy in 2014 while Gilsenan and McGrath are both due to graduate from the Leinster academy in the same year. JJ Hanrahan is a regular Munster starter while Iain Henderson’s versatility and athletic ability have made him a regular feature of the international 23.
The most interesting development this season for our selected five is Conor Gilsenan’s loan move to Connacht. As noted above, this is the first move of its type that I’m aware of in Ireland and one that is bound to become the prototype for similar moves in future. Tadhg Furlong is a member of this age group but didn’t play in the u20 Six Nations in 2012 due to injury so wasn’t considered for the original article. I rate Furlong extremely highly but he is behind Mike Ross and Marty Moore at Leinster for the time being so would he better moving another province on loan in order to get game time?
This is a difficult year to categorise – to borrow from Churchill, it seems that this season is the end of the beginning for the first 5 Up class. Thinking about this brought me around to one of my unsolved questions on rugby: when is it OK to say that someone isn’t all that? One of the most typical reactions of the great amorphous blob of internet commentary is to recoil at “negativity” shown towards any young player. “These are but babes in arms, barely out of swaddling clothe and you mock them! For shame!”.
A few years later and Chris Henry “…isn’t up to test rugby athletically, it is pretty much that simple.” Or “I’ve long pegged him as a not that, i.e. not that quick, not that powerful, not that skilful”. Poor Chris, the internet doesn’t like him.
So everyone has an opinion, we’re all OK on that one. I’m wondering when it’s acceptable to express it about someone? 22 – too early, 27 – definitely OK, it’s open season on Chris Henry at that stage.
My opinion is that all professional players who are getting starts at a professional level are, at the very least, pretty good and that applying consistency in judgement is the difficult bit. The academy systems are at different stages of development in each of the provinces but a broadly accepted number of best practices and class size have been adopted by all. Each class can be expected to produce 5-7 young professionals but how many of those can be accommodated is another matter.
Based on a 22 game league season, there is 1,760 minutes of play available each year with a further 480 minutes of European rugby. How many of those minutes do you have to play in order to feel it’s worth your time staying at the club – 528 (30%), 704 (40%), 880 (50%) or more?
A phrase of Bernard Jackman’s struck me a number of weeks ago at when he was being interviewed on Newstalk around the time that contracts were being signed for next season. He talked of players being “trapped by the tracksuit”, a phrase he used to describe players who stayed at a big club but did not start matches on a regular basis. They accumulated a lot of gear but Jackman thought that their careers were passing them by and it was an attitude he struggled to understand.
Painting with abstract broad brush strokes for a minute, let’s assume that a top class professional career is ten years long and that a pool of thirty provides two opportunities to start regularly at each position. That’s three players per year [30 players / 10 years = 3] so if the academies are producing six graduates annually then half of those will have to move to another club, perhaps to one not in their country of origin. In the context of the back row example as outlined above, if you’re not in the top six of minutes played then maybe it’s time to move. The players most likely to move are players that can earn more money somewhere else and who require regular game time in order to hone their skills and promote their career.
Based on that rationale, the Irish player base should expand in the years to come and instances like Robin Copeland’s story should become more familiar. Indeed, Eoin Reddan and Mike Ross suggest that those circumstances have been in existence for some time and that it is for the benefit of Irish rugby that players leave on occasion.
None of the Class of 2012 have yet left the country and we will continue to monitor their progress in the forthcoming years whether they stay at home or move abroad.