First things first – no Ringrose! The 5 Up format has bedded down, in this its third year, and we’ve once again selected one player from each of the provinces and a fifth who has had two years at international level. Ireland’s third nominee for the Junior Player of the Year award (after Jamie Heaslip and JJ Hanrahan) is back at this level next year and we chose two of his Leinster colleagues to concentrate on.
Ringrose wasn’t the only Leinster back of interest this season with Adam Byrne, who played for Leinster at 18 years of age and who was on Man United’s books for a period, another player who you feel will prove an interesting story.
As a consequence of the awareness developed writing these pieces and because there was a particularly strong Leinster u19 team in 2013, I had high hopes for this group. It ended with Ireland earning fourth place in the JWC, a best ever finish, on the back of winning one match of any significance throughout the season. That bonus point win against Wales vaulted Ireland over Grand Slam champions France and was a definite high point. One of the hallmarks of the season was the team’s habit of waiting until they had fallen behind to play its best rugby.
An encouraging start against Scotland was followed by a mauling by Wales in horrible conditions. England swatted Ireland away in the opening minutes at Franklins Gardens before Ireland rallied in the first half and fell away during the second half. A functional win against an Italian team with some athletic ball handlers was followed by a good game against France in Tarbes that saw Les Bleus win the Grand Slam.
Ireland withstood a physical barrage against France in the opening 25 minutes of their JWC meeting before getting back in the game only to turn down kickable penalties as well as making poor contact with the ball when they did choose to have a go at the posts. Ireland dominated territory against a skilful Welsh team and the pack was too good against Fiji in a downpour. Eventual champions England proved too powerful in the semi en route to retaining their title while NZ fancied themselves to score tries and weren’t wrong in the second half of the third place play off.
Waterpark bred O’Donoghue is already in his second year with Munster’s Academy and provided many of the team’s highlights during the season as well as captaining the squad at the JWC. O’Donoghue was also a regular starter with UL Bohs in Division 1B and was nominated as one of the players of the season in the Ulster Bank League.
O’Donoghue has some lovely football touches and an uncanny ability to break tackles. He looked very comfortable on the ball with good distribution skills and a fine nose for the line. He missed both the England Six Nations match and the 3rd place game with concussion which is something of a concern.
Munster chose to start Shane Buckley, CJ Stander and Paddy Buckley in their B&I Cup games during the season although O’Donoghue made appearances from the bench. Listed on the Munster website at 97kg, the Waterford man has room to add a few kilos but looks capable of playing senior rugby sooner rather than later on suitable occasions next season although competition at 8 in Munster is of a pretty high standard.
Dooley is, of course, from Offaly and was the Mole’s favourite player on this team. His instinct for the ball reminded me of none other than Thierry Dusautoir as Dooley showed up at an uncanny number of breakdowns, all the more so for a prop.
His scrummaging was good throughout the season and if Ireland had any issues it was on the tighthead side. Lansdowne started Dooley from the start of the season in Division 1A which was a credit to his technique as he only turned 19 in August of 2013. His go forward style, technical ability and footballing instincts mark him as one destined for higher honours. The main question seems to be what province will see him earn it with Cian Healy and Jack McGrath heading the queue in Leinster. For the time being Dooley has only just completed his first year of three in the Leinster academy and has yet to start a B&I Cup game.
“The Real” Sean O’Brien has one of the Mole’s favourite monikers and was selected to captain the squad in NZ before being ruled out by injury. O’Brien was born 9/12/94 so misses out on next year’s age group by just over three weeks. Galwegians fielded a consistent team on their way to topping Division 2A and O’Brien’s only start came a few weeks before his 19th birthday when selected at number 8.
O’Brien led Roscrea to a semi-final in his final year of school from number eight when he was very strong over the ball at the breakdown. He suffered cramp towards the end of a number of schools games and may not have the aerobic capacity to play pro in the back row. With O’Donoghue in situ at international level as eight, O’Brien played second row for the 20s and at 194cm doesn’t fit the conventional mould of an Irish lock. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrent and I think second row is his best position as he will only get stronger as he gets older and is a very good footballer.
That he got more starts in the B&I Cup than the AIL gives indication of how highly regarded he is by Connacht. Those starts came at 8, blindside and second row and O’Brien has captained teams at a number of levels. The Galway man has just completed his first year in the academy and looks like he will be a possible successor to Mick Swift in the Connacht squad over the next decade.
David Busby was Ulster’s sole representative for the bulk of the Six Nations and Taggart got his only start when O’Donoghue was injured for the England game. Busby picked up an injury before departure for JWC trip while Taggart came to the fore and started four out of five games, missing out only against Fiji.
Taggart is a Londoner who played his schools’ rugby for Whitgift College and came through the Exiles system before joining Ulster. While other provinces seem to have settled on a relatively uniform system for their academies with about 7-8 entrants annually, Ulster run a Masonic affair – it’s difficult to know who is in and how selective the entry requirements are! There appear to be only twelve players in total and Taggart isn’t one of them although he says that he is so go figure.
A number of try scoring starts for Belfast Harlequins in Division 1B was complemented by two December outings for the Ravens. Taggart was a willing ball carrier for Ireland and regularly got going forward and attracted a number of defenders. The age profile of his competition in Ulster suits him as Chris Henry is almost a decade older so it’s possible to see Taggart collecting starts over the forthcoming seasons although I think Dominic Ryan would be well served taking the M1 north.
Part of the reason for Ryan to consider his options is that Leavy is coming. On the radar since 15 after producing a superb display in a Leinster Schools’ Cup final, Leavy has the archetypal “good face”. When reading about prospects entering the NFL you come across such lines as “being able to handle a pro offence” and “being coachable” and have to get your head around what that means. Some youngsters have attributes that allow them to prosper at underage level and conceal shortcomings that are revealed against a higher calibre of opposition. Others have good habits and the ability to improve and Leavy looks to me as though he falls into the latter camp.
Leavy came on in last year’s JWC and immediately looked technically and physically capable, sentiments that were only reinforced in this year’s Six Nations when he captained the team before copping a season ending injury in the match against England.
Due to this, and undoubtedly other injuries, Leavy didn’t play many games during the season, starting at blindside and openside for UCD in November as well as two games at blindside and openside for Leinster A during a victorious B&I Cup campaign. At 1.91m and 101kg, Leavy looks cut out for openside at pro level and, as referred to above, has the capability to make the move sooner rather than later.
Shane Jennings is coming towards the end of an extremely successful career and Conor Gilsenan’s decision to move to London Irish reduces the competition for the Leinster seven shirt. Of course, the world class Sean O’Brien is the man in possession but he doesn’t line out for the province very frequently due to international commitments.
One of the drums the Mole likes to bang is that there was no “Golden Generation”. There was Brian O’Driscoll and a number of players around the same age that benefited from playing with one of Ireland’s greatest players in an increasingly organised and ambitious environment.
I remember being on Grafton Street in 1997 on the Friday before Ireland played New Zealand. Jeremy Davidson was going down the street in a memorable orange shirt that the Dutch football team would have been proud of. The Lions had won a test series that summer against the world champion Springboks and Davidson had been named as the forward of the tour. Playing alongside Martin Johnson, Davidson had seen off the challenge of Nigel Redman and Simon Shaw while as player as good as Gareth Llewellyn hadn’t even been selected. Davidson received a number of acknowledgements from the rugby men in the street but went on his way uninterrupted.
Walking the other way, signing autographs as he went for the constant throng surrounding him, was Jonah Lomu. Rugby in Ireland wasn’t big news in 1997 but Jonah was box office and is still probably the most iconographic player the game has produced. This blog is named after a piece of commentary in the Playstation game that bore Lomu’s name!
The contrast between the reaction to Davidson and Lomu was immediately evident while Lomu’s stardom, size and demeanour furthered the All Black myth. I wondered if Ireland would ever have such a figure. They mightn’t have but they had a man at the time that was capable of local stardom and could bear the role of an icon.
The impact of Keith Wood on Munster has been recounted by a number of his team mates and when Munster needed a try in Thomond in January 2000 against Saracens in the last minute of a dramatic and pulsating game you know who was on hand to deliver. Wood was followed by O’Driscoll and Irish rugby had iconic figures that won games that were shown on television.
The reason for this preamble? Most of this year’s group were born in 1994, and while they may remember the 2002 football world cup, Italia 90 and USA 94 are only stories to them. In place of those campaigns were the try scoring exploits of Brian O’Driscoll and afternoons watching Heineken Cup wins and Triple Crowns with a Grand Slam thrown in the mix. The buzzword coming out of the London Olympics was “legacy”. O’Driscoll’s legacy is starting to emerge.
A few other things made an impression on me watching this age grade. These lads were coached by a variety of men as they grew up who in turn had their rugby philosophies shaped by the likes of Eddie O’Sullivan, Declan Kidney, Niall O’Donovan and others responsible for Irish teams through the noughties. The 20s team had a well drilled line out and a scrum that struggled occasionally but not consistently. The outhalf had a good kicking range and looked like a young man who’d grown up influenced by Ronan O’Gara which is probably true. The maul was frequently used, to the extent that a number of teams expected Ireland to use it from lineouts predictably and just didn’t bother engaging while rucks were frequently sealed off correctly if not cleared furiously. Irish teams love going for the choke tackle and having a go at the ball but too frequently at the expense of effective technique when a definitive “chop” tackle (what used be called a tackle) would be better employed. Two of the three best footballers, Dooley and O’Donoghue, were products of youth rugby while the third, Ringrose, is the latest from the Blackrock production line.
Ireland went behind in both matches against a strong French team and on both occasions played themselves back into the game before ultimately losing. In years gone by, I feel that the gap would have widened and once the French got ahead they would have run riot; France expect to beat Ireland and Ireland expect to lose to France. That feeling still exists but not with the same certainty for either side. While this change in mentality is welcome, I believe our game still has space to develop.
Ireland were played off the park by England in a day where all the chickens came home to roost. Rather than merely being more physically powerful, England were also more skilful and ambitious for an Irish team that was mechanical and predictable. Some dreadful tackling technique allowed England get over the gain line repeatedly although the English were also playing at a far greater pace than Ireland who struggled to keep up.
Ireland will almost always be outweighed against England and that will never change bar exceptional years, they have bigger men and more of them. Irish players tend to be skinnier, wirier men which puts you on the back foot in a collision sport but allows you to last for longer in an aerobic one. Ireland need to play a fast, open game that tires out big teams who carry more weight. In order to do that successfully we need better ball handling. The match against NZ showed where Ireland’s ball handling and support lines stood in contrast to the standard setters. Ireland couldn’t get out of their own half in the second period unless they kicked the ball away and gave it back to a team that had no interest in taking shots at goal due to a fully held belief that the team they were playing against couldn’t defend at the pace required.
I believe that the Irish game needs to encourage its players to pass, have a cut and take risks rather than subsume them to a structured system that demands phases for phases’ sake. That’s a difficult ask in a results game and requires a development in philosophy that may run counter to years of conditioning. We’re getting better but, in the words of O’Driscoll, we could be great. In the year when Ireland’s best player retired, let’s hope that the kids who grew up watching him try to play like him as much as they can and encourage the next generation in turn. The baton has been passed.