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 closer to retirement, the starting centre berths at national level would soon become far less competitive after many years.
O’Driscoll has retired and while D’Arcy is still going he has found it more difficult to command his place in either the Ireland or Leinster teams.
Olding was rehabbing from a cruciate injury when we wrote last year’s article. That ruled him out of the tour to Argentina which saw Darren Cave start both tests, one at first centre and one at second. Luke Marshall and Fergus McFadden started at first centre in the first and at second centre in the second respectively. I got the feeling this was an opportunity missed for both Ireland and Olding. The Cave-McFadden partnership looks like a one-night-only arrangement and although the Marshall-Cave axis has a balanced looks to it, neither has wholly convinced at international level.
Olding returned for Ulster at the beginning of the season and started two of the first three games at first centre. The emergence of Stuart McCloskey as Ulster’s first choice centre surprised me as I anticipated it would be a shoot-out between Marshall and Olding.
One of the differences between the two is Olding’s versatility and he started at full back for Ulster either side of coming off the bench for Ireland and scoring a try. It might be added here that he scored late in the game against a tiring Georgia team but, like Robin Copeland, Olding immediately looked comfortable at that level. The new year saw Olding return to the centre for Ulster as Jared Payne compiled an occasional selection record for Ulster in 14/15.
Schmidt’s success throughout his time in Ireland and the methodological approach he takes means that he hasn’t yet attracted the sort of criticism that his predecessors had heaped on them upon occasion. I couldn’t understand the logic of playing Cave against Georgia given that Olding had been absent from the summer tour and it seems like an opportunity missed. It’s not a case that Cave is one of Schmidt’s favourites or that he was a test veteran who “deserved” the chance to play himself back into some form before a game against Australia.
Last year we wrote about this year being a difficult one to categorise and settled for the description that it was the “end of the beginning”. The players are still young and even if they have experience at the highest level, they don’t have very much. Olding’s performance against the behemoths of Toulon gave some lie to where he was at in relation to the top level. As Ulster played a wide game Olding was a little too deep, sidestepping into some trouble and failed to offer a threat that would have announced him at the top stage. A little harsh? Perhaps, but I rate Olding very highly and I wanted to see would he test Giteau and co and let them know that he had arrived. Unfortunately, the elbow injury that he suffered in that game meant that another half a season had been lost to injury and Olding’s opportunity to make the panel for the RWC was ended in the match against Cardiff when he suffered another cruciate injury.
The standards applied to Olding and how he got on against Toulon are put in perspective by Scannell’s progress at Munster which is not as advanced but which can be considered satisfactory. Scannell started games this season at AIL, B&I Cup and Pro12, indicative of the estimation his coaches have of him.
In contrast to Olding, Scannell’s progress has been uninterrupted by injury and he has played two seasons seemingly unscathed by misfortune. Although he made his starting debut for Munster in the centre he has played the bulk of his rugby this season for both Dolphin and Munster A at outhalf.
Scannell’s second start for Munster also came at outhalf when he was a late replacement for Ian Keatley against Cardiff. Axel Foley had this to say about the young midfielder.
“Because Ian was in national camp, we trained Rory at 10 on Tuesday so we’d prepared for what happened. I suppose we could have moved JJ to 10 from the start but I think Rory has got something about him, how he runs and plays the game. He is a very composed individual and having him and JJ on the pitch gave us a lot more options.”
Scannell has taken responsibility for the kicking duties all season for both Dolphin and Munster A and produced a tour de force in the AIL against UCD with two tries, two penalties and four conversions to steer Dolphin to only their second win of the season.
Taking over from Brian O’Driscoll is the least enviable task in Irish rugby but Henshaw is going about it in the same unflustered manner that has marked his career to date.
As with Olding, Henshaw also missed the tour to Argentina but it scarcely seemed to knock him off his stride and he started both wins against South Africa and Australia. One episode in the South African match stood out for me. South Africa won a lineout and moved it into the middle of the park where Jan Serfontein hit it up, travelling at pace. Henshaw stepped forward and stopped Serfontein dead in his tracks whereupon it took three more South Africans to win the breakdown while Ireland didn’t bother putting anyone extra in. Kevin Maggs was a good tackler and Drico punched above his weight but I can’t remember Ireland ever having such physicality in midfield.
It’s not just that Henshaw is big, it’s also that his technique is good and he seems to enjoy it. There‘s a back handed compliment in the NFL to describe someone as “a finesse player”; they might have a lot of skills but, to mix metaphors, they’ve never done it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke. The Munster v Connacht game over the Christmas break served some evidence of the difference between Henshaw and Hanrahan at this early stage of their careers. Hanrahan had been picked at centre by Foley and Henshaw ran a line past him with barely a touch. You can reason it all sorts of ways but it just looked like making that read wasn’t Hanrahan’s instinct and I figured that were the roles reversed, Henshaw would have seen it coming and nailed him.
O’Driscoll identified this about him during his last season “He has an appetite for hurting people; he has an appetite to go after a hit.” This attitude is coupled with a really good technique as noted by Joe Schmidt in the aftermath of the England game when Henshaw won man of the match
“I just thought his tackle count was massive for us, he made 31 tackles in the first two games and it’s very, very seldom that a midfield player is your top tackler. In 160 minutes, to accumulate 31 tackles and the tackles being top-quality tackles as well the bulk of them… He certainly made a few more today.”
At only 21, it seems as though Henshaw is set to become a fixture in the midfield and it is encouraging to realise that the likes of Hanrahan, Olding and Ringrose could each join him at some stage. The professional set up in Ireland is getting very competitive and concerns about the passing of “the golden generation” may prove misplaced.
One of the knock on effects of the level of competition prevalent in the development stage for professional players is that it is difficult to get a start, particularly when you pick up a few injuries and all the more if you’re contracted to Leinster.
Tom Daly has had regular involvement with the Lansdowne team that topped Division 1A but the decision to sign Ben Te’o reduces the opportunities for indigenous young players. Leinster A have won the last two B&I cups and although Daly started two games in the 14/15 campaign, Colly O’Shea and Brendan Macken were selected in the centre for this season’s quarter final. O’Shea and Macken started games for Leinster three and four season ago respectively. Noel Reid started the 2014 B&I final alongside Macken in May 2014 and made his debut for Ireland less than a month later in Argentina!
Daly was the place kicker for the u20s when the lads were at that grade but unlike Scannell does not take the kicks for his club as Scott Deasy is trusted with the placed ball for Lansdowne. It’s a shame from his point of view because having the ability to kick goals under pressure is a valuable skill and one associated almost solely with outhalfs in Ireland although there’s no exclusivity mandated.
We compared Daly with Henshaw last year as both are big midfield players with a background as county minors with midlands counties. This season was one of contrasts rather than similarities and goes to show how quickly circumstances can change. Daly is in his second year in the Leinster academy and is scheduled to graduate in 2016. It seems only a matter of time before he leaves the club and I’m interested to see where he goes.
A number of themes are reinforced as the years pass and more players are reviewed at similar stages. In previous editions of this series we’ve talked about 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 also tagged this year as the “end of the beginning”, when most players are coming to the end of their academy contracts and are at their province/club of origin.
That said, some players make the break earlier than others and even in the two small subsets that we’ve concentrated on there are some similarities. Henderson (17 caps including 3 starts) and Henshaw (10 caps including 8 starts) are the most advanced in each group. Both are big strong players with good technique who were able to handle the physical demands of top level rugby from an early age. I think it’s fair to say that physical talent sets the floor of a player’s ability but that mental ability raises the ceiling and defines greatness. Check out the references to O’Driscoll’s competitiveness in this piece by Trevor “Howya, it’s me, the guy from the bar!” Hogan
For Henshaw, the role of promotor was fulfilled by Eric Elwood who was prepared to start him at nineteen and a half and then to persist with him throughout that first season. Foley’s quote about Scannell brings that decision making from a coach into sharper focus; it would have been easier to move Hanrahan to outhalf and keep Scannell on the bench but Munster were prepared to back the young Corkonian and as a consequence I judge that he has moved into a different mental bracket.
Scannell’s progress has, in many ways, followed what one could consider an archetype smooth path with lots of AIL, steady B&I and occasional Pro12 appearances. However, for all the work that he does, he needs a selector to pick him in order to prove his ability and allow him to get a taste of a higher level. Foley has not given many youngsters (aged younger than 23 as per Age of Aquarius) the chance to start matches: Jack O’Donoghue, JJ Hanrahan, Scannell and Pat Howard from South Africa are the only ones to have been given an opportunity.
Howard’s run of games raises questions about the Irish system. He was signed on a three-month contract as injury cover and started five league games in a row from the Ulster fixture at the end of November fixture to the tenth of January fixture against Zebre. Of those five games, Munster won two at Thomond and one in Zebre and lost the other two away games against Connacht and Glasgow. Howard also started two of the three ECR (Heineken Cup) games against Clermont and Saracens (both losses), to compile a 3-4 record for Munster. What proportion of these defeats could be attributable to him? It’s impossible to put a figure on it but probably 2-5% for the sake of a spurious figure. What was the value to Irish rugby? Nil. Munster won three matches that they would have won anyway and an Irish guy didn’t get exposure to top level rugby. This was a singularly pointless waste of time and money. If Munster could have signed Jacques Fourie or Conrad Smith for three months then that would have been worth it because it could have meant qualification for the knock outs. You want a centre for three months? Then play Scannell! Or, to spice things up a bit, get Tom Daly, Tom Farrell or Gary Ringrose to Munster on a short term loan deal because Matt O’Connor’s in no hurry to play any of them for Leinster.
In each instance this whole episode is easily explained. Pat Howard got an offer of a contract and the opportunity to play Heineken Cup, he travelled up and did his best. Foley knows more than anyone about his squad and judged that Howard best fulfilled his required criteria and the aforementioned trio are contracted to a rival club. When you take a step back and look at it from a different angle, it makes less sense. The IRFU are paying players to stay on its books. Minutes in competitive games is the commodity that you want to secure for these players in order to get any return form them. Why give away 25% of the season’s game time to a player who isn’t going to stick around unless he’s good enough to make a real difference? Foley didn’t want to take any risks and so there was no rewards to be had from this venture; if anything there was the opportunity cost of experience squandered.
The issue raised here is the evaluation of players and the value of experience. Daly, like Gilsenan in the 2012 group, has been denied game time in Leinster because of their squad depth. At the moment the province that develops the player has the option to sign him to a development or full contract upon expiration of his academy deal. Once the academy contract expires then the player is free to move and the province that put the work into his development does not receive a transfer fee. For all the work done behind the scenes, the selector has to take the risk with young players in order to get any real reward from them else the benefit derived from the work done under the academy contract will accrue to another team. The obvious case in Irish rugby is JJ Hanrahan but it’s yet to be proven if Northampton have got themselves a deal or not. If they have then what is Hanrahan’s replacement cost? The introduction of young talent will continue to be a significant determinant of a provincial coach’s success; Henshaw had to be given a chance to show that he was good and Eric Elwood should be thanked for that.
With Irish rugby producing squads with greater depth of indigenous talent than ever before, it seems natural that the union will insist on any medical replacement being sourced from one of the academy system it funds.
The conclusion of Year 2 for this group sees us wish the best for Stuart Olding who has now suffered two cruciate ligament injuries in two seasons. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions”. Fingers crossed that a gifted youngster makes a full recovery and enjoys some good luck upon his return.