Stuart Olding hot steps over from 40m against Treviso. I love Andrew Trimble’s reaction as he crosses the line!
We selected four players from the u20 cohort of 2013 in order to follow their progress in a similar manner as applied to their predecessors of 2012. One player was selected from each province. All the players selected from 2013 were backs, who had started at centre for the Irish u20 team, for two reasons. Firstly, the 2013 backs caught my eye more than the forwards from that year and, secondly, with D’Arcy and O’Driscoll each moving close to retirement, the starting centre berths at national level would soon become far less competitive after many years.
Last year when discussing the Year 1 group 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. We were interested to see how these themes applied to each of the players in this year’s group as well as how they got on with playing.
Olding started nine out of Ulster’s last ten games of the 2012/13 season at first centre, the exception being the Heineken Cup quarter final in Twickenham when he appeared as a substitute and illuminated the game with his quick feet and footballing instincts.
On the back of this form he was selected at first centre against the USA in Houston for his first cap. About this rapid elevation as a twelve, Olding revealed in an interview with Brendan Fanning that he “played 10 in my lower sixth year in school and then at fullback and all over the place really in my last year. But I’m loving it at 12 at the minute. People say I’m a bit small for the position. The step up has been a challenge with the intensity of the game and the physicality of the hits. They come faster and more often, but so far I’m enjoying it.”
He was replaced for the following game against Canada by James Downey, a player at the other end of his career. Upon his return to Ulster Olding had to wait a while for his first start in his second season, this time at full back, of which he said “It is a position that I really enjoy playing in. I was fullback for Ireland Under 20s in the Six Nations and the Junior World Championship so I am very confident there and I am looking forward to tomorrow night’s game.”
That game in October was his only start for Ulster as Olding injured his anterior cruciate ligament against the Connacht Eagles while playing for Ulster Ravens during November. He has not played since and is undergoing rehabilitation.
Olding benefitted from the injury of others in 2013 as it enabled him to get a run of games at first centre and put himself in line for an international call up. He made the most of that opportunity and crossed the Rubicon where now his name is mentioned frequently as a possible long term successor to the present incumbents even though he played one first team match in 2013/’14. The fact that Schmidt and/or Kiss selected Olding indicates that they like what they saw and want him involved.
Mark Anscombe was in no rush to select Olding for the first team this season which may well reflect the talent available to him in Ulster rather than an aversion to youth. Luke Marshall and Darren Cave have each had a good run with injuries this season, as has Jared Payne. Craig Gilroy has also featured for Ulster at full back during the season. Of those four, only Marshall has been regularly involved with the international squad, and even then he was second choice to D’Arcy for the bulk of the Six Nations. Interestingly, both Niall Annett and Chris Farrell, two talented underage internationals, have chosen to move on from Ulster, heading to Worcester and Grenoble respectively. This may be symptomatic of Anscombe’s reluctance to promote them quicker or may be a matter that they look at the players ahead of them and decide that a greater opportunity to gain experience can be found elsewhere.
Scannell finished the 2013 season at second centre for Dolphin before travelling to the JWC in France. He started full back in the first game of the tournament, a 19-15 win against Australia, before moving to centre for the games against NZ and France.
Upon his return from the off-season, he was promoted from the Munster sub-academy to the full academy at the start of the 2013/14 season. He has alternated between out half and centre for Dolphin in Division 1A of the AIL where has taken on place kicking duties in some matches. In the B&I Cup Scannell has made three starts, two at outhalf and the other at full back. A late cameo from the bench in the second round of matches saw Scannell score the winning try against Nottingham.
Scannell has been fortunate with injuries this season and last and has played a lot of rugby, mostly for Dolphin as an outhalf. Chances haven’t been so plentiful for Munster although he did get a start at outhalf in the B&I Cup quarter final against Leinster but didn’t reappear after half time. Club mate Cian Bohane and Ivan Dineen have formed Munster A’s centre partnership frequently this season while Johnny Holland started most matches at outhalf. On the first team, Hanrahan and Keatley have shared ten with Munster using Dineen and Downey for most of the season at first centre as well as experimenting with Denis Hurley. Casey Laulala has had a lock on the second centre slot with rare exception this year.
From this angle, no one has decided to champion Scannell this season. The 26 year old Ivan Dineen is near the prime of his career while Downey (33) and Laulala (leaving) don’t have much time left in red so Munster are getting as much use out of them as they can, as seems sensible.
Henshaw had already started games for Connacht when we compiled the list for the 2013 4 Up series and was the obvious selection from the western province. Starting games doesn’t really do justice to his 2013 season; he was first choice full back ahead of Irish international Gavin Duffy in his first year out of school.
Henshaw’s first Connacht try came against Edinburgh late in the season and he was selected for the test match against the US Eagles in Houston four days before his 20th birthday.
It was reported in November 2013 that Henshaw had signed a contract “extension takes him up from an academy to a Connacht contract in June.” This confused me as I thought Henshaw had signed a full deal months before. His Dad is acting as his agent and referenced his education as a reason for staying with Connacht “It suited him [to stay with Connacht] because as you know yourself it is bloody difficult to get a degree and play professional rugby.”
Despite having played most of his professional career at full back, O’Driscoll’s looming retirement saw Henshaw tried at centre for Connacht and learning the ropes with Ireland, “He said to me he learnt more in the last four weeks with these guys than all his life playing rugby. He said it was incredible Tuesday and Wednesday last week as he was in the backline with O’Driscoll standing behind, telling him everything. He said he couldn’t buy what he learnt.”
Coach Pat Lam also had a few words to say about Henshaw’s switch and how both he and the team were dealing with it “We’ve made some slight adjustments, particularly on his defence lines, to suit his aggressive, in-the-face sort of style and it paid off. He knows he’s just like Jack (Carty) and Darragh (Leader) and the rest of them, he’s still got a lot of development to go. More game time is helping him and, hopefully, he’ll get a chance in the internationals coming up too. I believe he’s ready for that. I thought last week particularly against, you know, the legend (O’Driscoll) he did well.”
Of Connacht’s 18 league games this season, Henshaw has started six at centre and 8 at full back. He started four in the centre during the Heineken Cup and two at full back.
Henshaw hit the sweet spot with both injuries and promoters. Heresy to say it, I wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about until recently although as noted before, I don’t watch enough Connacht games to have a fully qualified opinion. With that said, he was only 19 during his first season and his recent matches have been impressive.
It was a bold decision by Eric Elwood to select Henshaw so early and so often and he deserves credit for making the decision when it would have been easier to stick with the established skills of Gavin Duffy. It might be more comfortable to forget but Gavin Duffy had been called up by Declan Kidney in 2012 for the NZ tour so he featured in the national coach’s mind.
On the back of so much senior rugby at such a young age, Joe Schmidt has involved Henshaw at a national level and is the most important promoter in the country. This raises the question of whether Henshaw should stay with Connacht, unpopular as that question may be. Ireland need a second centre to replace O’Driscoll and both Munster and Leinster are losing theirs at the end of this season. Should the national team’s greater good get precedence over Connacht, the least commercially viable of all Irish provinces?
Coincidentally, it was only this morning that it was reported that IRFU president Pat Fitzgerald had given an interview where he said that “That’s a difficult one, I don’t have the answer. All I can say is that if the national coach feels that Robbie Henshaw would be better playing in another province, then the green team I’m afraid has to come first.”
Lansdowne closed off their league winning 2013 season with two defeats having wrapped the title up a few weeks earlier. Daly had started four of those games and didn’t make his way back into the starting line up after the u20 Six Nations.
After having been selected at second centre for all the 2013 Six Nations matches, Daly was moved to No12 for the opening round of the JWC against Australia. He also started against Fiji but an injury precluded his involvement in the remainder of the tournament.
He was selected to enter the Leinster academy and started at first centre for Leinster ‘A’ in the first two rounds of the B&I Cup, as well as making a handful of appearances for Lansdowne where he has assumed some of the place kicking responsibilities.
If Henshaw hit the sweet spot then Daly has had rotten luck. That he started the first two B&I Cup games (12th and 19th October 2013) indicates to me that he was in the plans but after that there didn’t seem to be much sight of him until the New Year when he played AIL with Lansdowne. His JWC campaign was also cut short by injury after his kicking helped Ireland to victory over Australia.
Daly’s timing has been unfortunate because D’Arcy’s Indian summer with Ireland and Andrew Goodman’s season-long unavailability has allowed Noel Reid to start 11 games in the Pro 12. Reid also started Leinster’s last two B&I Cup matches, indicating either that he is not considered first team or that Leinster’s depth chart is shallow at first centre.
From a distance, there’s a lot of similarities between Daly and Henshaw in that both are big midfield players with a background as county minors with midlands counties. To date their careers have not followed anything like the same trajectory and they are currently operating in different spheres.
As noted in the 2012 Year 2 article, I view the academy structures in place at each province as particularly important when a young player gets injured. Rehabilitation is readily available and the knowledge that there is a three year pathway mapped out must be reassuring to a young player who is struggling with adversity in sport for perhaps the first time. Henshaw and Olding have both had a rapid elevation that is atypical rather than following the road more travelled.
Nonetheless, both have entered the discussion at a national level and are envisioned as part of a future Ireland team. That is a good reputation to have but I’m also interested in the reaction to late bloomers – the likes of McFadden, Henry and Coughlan – who seem to get a reluctant credit from supporters for consistently good performances.
If supporters are occasionally a bit begrudging in their appreciation of this caste of player, coaches aren’t and sometimes at the expense of the tyros (chapeau, Dexy’s) in their squad. I believe that the willingness of a coach to pick young players in match day squads and his ability to still get results is the hallmark of a very good top class coach. This is what is referred to as “bringing young players through”. Joe Schmidt was best of breed at this part of the role as well and in a system that focuses on the promotion of domestic talent, and imposes restrictions on the number of imports, it’s a crucial skill to have in Ireland.
As a consequence of the dichotomy referred to earlier, where both Olding and Henshaw have already been selected to start for Ireland, while neither Scannell nor Daly has yet made a competitive start for their province, I found myself asking the nature versus nurture question. How good can professionalism, and the academy system, make somebody and are there “things you can’t coach” as referred to by Declan Kidney after the 2011 Italian Six Nations match when O’Gara had saved his bacon? What are these things and why are they uncoachable?
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” was Wayne Gretzky’s way of explaining the understanding of the rink that made him the greatest ice-hockey player of all time. In a similar vein, a quote that has lived with me for years was from a Scottish full back called David Barrett. Barrett played for Scotland B in 1991 when he was 28 and as a consequence was one of hundreds of players asked for their most respected opponent in The Rugby Union Who’s Who 1991/92 (but you haven’t read it?!). As his most respected player he selected Irish great Michael Gibson. The qualification he gave made it sound genuine rather than simply name dropping. “I was 19, he was 41 and, to this day, still the best player I have come up against.”
Two things struck me. Barrett’s career spanned a good time for Scottish rugby including two Grand Slams in 1984 and 1990. There were a lot of high quality players at that time including Finlay Calder and Gavin Hastings, the Lions captains in ’89 and ’93, and John Jeffrey who garnered a lot of votes as peoples’ most respected opponent. And yet his experience of Gibson made an impact on him years later. The second thing is that Gibson was 41. Born in December 1942, the great Lion was 29 in 1971 when he toured NZ and made his mark as “as near the perfect rugby player as I have seen in any position” according to none other than Colin Meads, himself a contender for such an accolade if reports are to be believed. By the time Barrett played Gibson, the great CMH was past his physical prime so it must have been his football instincts that made such an impression. What interests me are the questions of whether these football instincts can be honed, to what extent and most importantly how?
My feeling is that the best way to improve as a player is firstly to play, to keep enjoying it and then to consider your game, ideally with others. With this final point in mind, the quote from Henshaw’s dad about training with O’Driscoll is very interesting. “He said it was incredible Tuesday and Wednesday last week as he was in the backline with O’Driscoll standing behind, telling him everything. He said he couldn’t buy what he learnt.”
This reminds me of one of my favourite sporting insights this one concerning leg spin legend, Shane Warne, one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the 20th century. Warne took over both captaincy and coaching duties of the Rajasthan Royals in 2008, the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) season. Warnie’s approach was pretty simple: you had to go to nets in the morning and stay for lunch afterwards where you would talk about cricket. The rest of the day was up to you. At the outset of the season, the Royals had been considered the weakest team in the league but, you guessed it, they ended up winning the title. Sports psychologists refer to this sort of process as “visualisation”. Bath used refer to “peer pressure” as the reason for their consistent success in the 80s when Jack Rowell devolved a lot of decision making to the players. Joe Schmidt talked about the national squad being “player led” during the Six Nations.
The players get a further chance to hone their styles of play during the summer tour to Argentina where the quest to find the heirs to O’Driscoll and Gibson in Ireland’s midfield will begin in earnest. Hopefully some of these four young men will be able to provide the solution over the years to come.