4 Up 2013 – Year 2

Robbie Henshaw took to international rugby pretty quickly and earned a Championship medal in his first full season.

Robbie Henshaw took to international rugby pretty quickly and earned a Championship medal in his first full season.

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.

Rory Scannell

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.

Robbie Henshaw

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.

Tom Daly

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.

18 thoughts on “4 Up 2013 – Year 2

  1. Good work Mole, as always.

    The above point regarding Pat Howard is an interesting one. Ulster have centres coming out of their whazoo, so far this season they have played (amongst others) Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey in the centres. All players who have been involved in Irish setups, all well above the standard of Pat Howard. Conversely, Munster have a strong stable of backrow forwards and guys who have proven European Cup performance pedigree like Sean Dougall and Dave O’Callaghan are riding pine or in the stands for the big games while Ulster fielded Clive Ross and Mike McComish on the flanks against Toulon.

    Is a harem of quality centres in Ulster and quality backrowers in Munster really serving Irish rugby when both provinces have resorted to SH journeymen or Irish never-will-bes to cover their problem positions when the other province has quality Irish players in that exact same area who are not making match day squads? No coach will allow quality players to leave if he can help it, but it strikes me that given his brief, is avoiding these kind of bottlenecks not part of the mandate of David Nucifora? He has done a pretty good impression of the Invisible Man so far, and while I’m sure the provinces are loath to allow IRFU meddling in their squads, if we view the Irish national side as the pinnacle we should have a system that maximises the potential of a limited playing pool.

    • Thanks. If Nucifora positions himself as a micro-managing dictator then there’s a lot of scope for media attention and accusations of favouritism should things go awry which would compromise him politically. I don’t think there’s the appetite for Politburo-like allocation of resources but moving talent from an academy system on short term loan should be encouraged if the young guys aren’t getting games. The IRFU pay them all anyway so ultimately they’re calling the shots.

      • In reference to both the posts, probably the best thing the IRFU could do would be put down hard rules for inter-season loans.

        – Any (Irish) player that has not been selected for their province in the previous 6 months [injuries notwithstanding] is available for loan. The province does not have an option. If they want to keep him off the loan availability list, play him.

        – If a province requires a stop-gap measure, then they can request a loan through Nucifora. He decides if the need is valid. The player is then given the option of a loan.

        – At the conclusion of the loan (whether for a 3 month period or to season’s end), the player and province can have the (joint agreed) option of transferring the player’s contract from the original province to the new one. Compensation to the original province is decided on by Nucifora.

        Doing the above (or something of that ilk) would avoid any favouritism, grey-areas, back-room dealings and hopefully increase the chances of Irish provinces playing Irish youngsters when they need someone in ASAP.

      • If recent trends are anything to go on, Daly will go on loan to Connacht, improve beyond all recognition and then sign a full contract instead of returning east. In fact, I believe MOC is now on record as being against a loan system for this very reason, although whether that will transfer into him taking more chances on youth is anyone’s guess (hint: it won’t!).

  2. It’s assumed Daly will leave Leinster? Why?

    Matt O’Connor’s unwillingness to play young irish players is just another strike against his poor reign in charge of Leinster.

    • It is assumed Daly will leave Leinster based on the other centres there at the moment: Madigan, Reid, Crosbie, Farrell, Te’o, Fitzgerald, Ringrose and O’Loughlin. D’Arcy can be added to that list but isn’t a long term consideration. Daly may well stay but based on the amount of game time he’s getting, why would he?

  3. A bugbear of mine -and would like to hear your take on it- is players getting taken away from the under 20s before they are overage. This happened with Jackson when ulster pulled rank and (may be wrong here) but i think Schmidt took olding (and henshaw?) out of it too before they both went and got injured prior to the Argentina tour anyway. The comparison in the careers of jackson and hanrahan is a pretty interesting one mind you. Despite my dislike of it, has not going to that jrwc led to Jackson establishing himself at ulster? But did that sequence of events end up getting hanrahan a contract with Northampton he wouldn’t otherwise have got?!

    I also think your point about having the requisite physicality setting the floor for potential is a really good one. Some of injury is luck, but some (at least partly) avoidable by good screening and having a good prehab program and some avoidable by just keeping bodies out of the type of contact where it isn’t advisable (be that body size or recent injury history, particularly including head injury). Henshaw was always a big unit and in his early days under Elwood he managed to get game time and get by without injury. You might call this hindsight but his promotion always felt a reasonably good bet. Especially as he went between (mainly) 15 and 13. Coming into this season he clearly put a fair bit of meat on his bones too and I agree that contact is something he relishes. He is now thriving as a 12, but I am not sure he could have managed that until recently, despite his physical attributes. Someone asked you to review the diddymen piece recently and it’d be really interesting with henshaw and now mccloskey of similar build and possibly similarly good technique.

    In this way I think there might be regret in how olding (and also hanrahan from the last piece) have been handled. I know olding’s potential is sky high but: taking him out of the 20s, playing him at 12 when he didn’t at that point have the physical attributes of a henshaw or a mccloskey (Schmidt to be fair I think wisely used him at fullback internationally), playing him against Basteareaud (O’Driscoll who is as tough and technically good defensively as there has been in my time called him “undefendable”). Now I know he got injured initially playing for ulster A but overall it feels like too much has been asked of him to me. George ford was able to play premiership games at about 11 years of age but he played 10 and got the protection with that, he is still getting that protection now! It feels like we threw olding to the lions a bit. Similarly I can understand why hanrahan might’ve been less than keen to repeatedly tackle the likes of henshaw. How long would he last? I’m not intending to be too critical here and perhaps I’m being unfair, but do think going forward as much as we want skilfull, distributing 12s and we want kids to be given their go, i’d prefer it to be skilfully done. I suppose we are back to the age of Aquarius piece as to whether you like the Cheika or Schmidt way of doing it. It will be really interesting to see scannell’s (more conventional) progress now too in comparison to jackson and hanrahan, especially given that Munster now have two kiwi 10/second five eight type players on the books for next season.

    Anyway, a brilliant read mole-thanks.

    • Hmmm, it’s this sort of hypothesising that the 5 Up Series was designed to create! Henshaw and Olding missed out on their u20 JWC to tour North America whereupon both were capped so that’s legit in my book.
      Jackson was withdrawn (by Ulster as I recall) in order to get a preseason. As regards improvement at rugby, I’m from the school of Playing Rugby (makes you better) rather than the church of Doing Weights and Not Playing. Ulster wanted to establish Jackson regardless, he was the anointed one. His withdrawal from the JWC smacks of preservation by Humphreys of a playing resource.
      Jackson’s absence meant that Hanrahan had the opportunity to shine at outhalf and I believe it is his underage pedigree that got him the move to Northampton. The Law of Unintended Consequences! I’d never thought of it like that but those are the little twists that make a difference. Another knock on from Jackson’s absence in 2012 is that Scannell should be afforded more opportunity in Hanrahan’s absence.
      I think Olding was unlucky with injuries…I’m not sure there’s anything more to it than that.

      • Jackson could only have been withdrawn by IRFU consent; insofar as I can tell, the Junior World Cup falls within Regulation 9 and players have to be released.

        It made sense to me at the time. It was very clear that Jackson was going to be, fitness permitting, in every Ulster match day 23 in his next season and probably involved in an Ireland squad every summer from there on until retirement. It was his last good opportunity to to toughen up his body and it made sense to let him do so, for both Ulster and Ireland. It’s worth noting that Leicester and England came to a similar agreement over George Ford in the same summer.

        It’s possible not having that break has affected Olding… myself, I’m inclined to look at Ulster’s history with knee injuries and wonder if something’s not being done quite right; they’ve had an incredible run of bad luck there.

  4. – Olding is very unlucky. What is worrying is how easily he picked up his latest injury.

    – Scannell has really impressed me and gotten better than he was for the U20s. He is a very intelligent player who has good skills also. A dark horse in the sense that nobody’s talkign about him.

    – Henshaw is flying now. Another very smart player who has a few skills as well. I’d like to see him at 13 in future because playing at 12 he is being used as a battering ram. He is a fantastic athlete though.

    – Daly. I’ve not seen too much of Daly but he is a decent player and if he can kick well then he could be valuable to some team. Connacht would spring to mind as a team crying out for another kicker.

    Rugby in Ireland has come a long way since the 90s. The IRFU have done a great job but that doesn’t mean things are perfect. Its a shame to see Connacht possibly losing out on 6th place in the pro 12. They’re just short of a few players, players which other provinces have in reserve.

    Its all to do with being competitive versus player development. If some people in the provinces had their way there would be no player development at all. It would be like the French clubs. Therefore its up to the IRFU to put even more pressure on the provinces to develop players.

    I’d like the IRFU offer more or a carrot and stick approach to reward player development and punish a lack of it.

  5. Is Herr Schmidt’s Jordan Coghlan experiment kaput and can the lad finally go back to serving Irish sport to where he is best suited (we need a pacey opening bowler much more than a 4th string back row forward) ?

  6. Re the “undefendable” Bastereaud”, I’d love T’eo do a job on him in Marseille like the one he did to Warbs in Cardiff a couple of months back. It’d might teach France’s wrecking ball a lesson for his repeated head-butting of Sexton in the 6 Nations!!!!

  7. It’s disappointing to see the double standards from some people as regards imports vs Irish youngsters coming through. Oftentimes the same people will say that the likes of Te’o need time to grow into a role, but that the likes of Daly aren’t ready for Pro12 level. There needs to be an understanding that young guys need time to adapt as well, and that they need to be given a chance as part of their development. Daly is similar in size to Henshaw, so lack of physicality shouldn’t be an issue

  8. Pingback: David? Are You There? | Whiff of Cordite

  9. This could be an O’Driscoll hangover but is it just me or are there a lot of centres coming through in the provinces of a roughly similar standard all challenging for the same places. My worry is with so many interchangeable centres there’s a real possibility that none of the up and coming will stand out enough to gain the game time required to develops to the next level and we’ll go through a series of players like Brendan Macken who are good but just not quite good enough to really do the job.

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