We started the 5 Up Series nearly five 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.
“One of the observations that we made about Henderson in years gone by was that we still hadn’t found his ceiling. This tournament gave some evidence to where that ceiling was: playing in the second row at test level against a serious Puma eight. Hendy looked absolutely pooped when he left the field in the quarter final having worked hard to keep his team in the game.”
Henderson has a dual identity – back row in domestic fare for Ulster, second row at international level for Ireland. His first two international starts were at blindside, against the US in Houston on an end of season tour and against Italy in the 6N as a stand in for the injured Peter O’Mahony. He filled in for the suspended CJ Stander against the Springboks in the summer of 2016 but the balance of appearances have been in the second row where he has partnered Paul O’Connell (born October 1979), Donncha Ryan (born December 1983) and Devin Toner (born June 1986).
The spacing between that trio and Henderson’s February 1992 birthday is a measure of the scarcity of Ireland’s second row resources and an indication of why he has been selected more often at second row than on the blind side at the top level. Ireland doesn’t have the gene pool that throws up 2m+ athletes on a regular basis although there’s no doubt some Kerrymen who could do a job if they weren’t playing football. Speaking of Kerrymen, Ultan Dillane was born in November 1993 while Dublin’s James Ryan, a fine Tipp name, is July 1996.
Opinion had it that Henderson was missed during the Six Nations. Having been first capped in 2013, how did it take three years for him to be missed? Part of the reason is Paul O’Connell, who started 20 tests after Henderson’s first cap and who provided Ireland with so much as a second row and captain. Part of it is Henderson’s powerful, ball-playing ability which allows him to do things that other second rows can’t do, part of it is media driven and part of it is that he came of age at the RWC when he was still 23.
His phased appearances were arguably a good thing as he gained a lot of experience without having to deal with being dropped. He got to watch Paul O’Connell at close quarters towards the end of his career and he didn’t enter the zone of cause celebre inhabited by provincial team mates Stuart McCloskey and Paddy Jackson. The requirement for him to fill the void left by O’Connell was acknowledged by Easterby prior to the 2016 South African tour
“We talked about experience, he’s got to step up now and other players have to step up and take the mantle on of players that we maybe don’t have anymore. That’s part of your evolution as a team, you can’t look back because we’ll never move forward if we do that. You’ve got to just keep driving those players like Hendy, like Ultan to really push the others and make sure that they start to put their stamp on their positions when they get the opportunity.“
The 24 year old Henderson is playing in something of a golden age for international second rows. For years the preserve of grizzled veterans, young bucks like Retallick (born May 91, 60 caps), Etzebeth (born Oct 91, 54 caps), Lavanini (born Jan 93, 30 caps), Johnny Gray (born Mar 94, 28 caps) and Itoje (born Oct 94, 7 caps) are blazing a trail with their ability around the pitch as well as in the set piece.
Conor Gilsenan’s second season at London Irish didn’t provide as many starting opportunities as he might have hoped. The Premiership is not set up to supply Team England so there isn’t a cap on the amount of overseas players at each club which means it’s full of pros trying to get a start and a contract renewal. Irish’s relegation in 15/16 means that they are playing in, and dominating, the Championship this season. Scotland openside Blair Cowan is first choice openside at the Madejski and Gilsenan has found starts difficult to come by due to Cowan’s consistency.
Hanrahan’s English experience has proved more fruitful than Gilsenan’s although the Kerryman’s sojourn has not gone quite as he wanted.
Hanrahan is on record as seeing himself primarily as a 10 and his experience in his last two seasons at Munster differed. In 14/15, Rob Penney started Hanrahan in 11 Pro 12 games in his last season, all at 10. The following year, Foley started Hanrahan in 10 league games but only three of them were at out-half with two at centre and five at fullback. No other player was moved around as much in the backline; Denis Hurley, who could actually play fullback, started 15 games in the Pro12 as first centre and none at fullback.
The suspicion remains that had he stayed at Munster he’d have been used frequently at full back and probably would be on less cash. If Hanrahan had started as first centre as well as out-half, a plausible but unconvincing argument could be made that Keatley had the full backing of the management and that Hanrahan was viewed as a midfield playmaker. But fullback? When he’d already started half of the previous season’s league games as out-half? That’s a demotion in my book.
All games can be categorised as either competition or collaboration and my interpretation is that Hanrahan and Foley ended on opposite sides of the table rather than finding the route that would have been best for both them and Munster. A state of conflict is the only state of stability in a competition game and neither Foley or Hanrahan were for the turning…everyone’s loss. My perception from outside is that Foley’s attitude to Hanrahan was that he should have been happy to have the jersey, regardless of the number, and that he’d have to display patience. Hanrahan’s attitude seemed to be that it was a short career and he had to make the most from it while he could. As it turns out, had Munster a better place kicker – such as Hanrahan – then they might have made the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup and his stock would have risen further. What if…?
Ireland has never been far from Hanrahan’s mind, this excerpt is taken from an interview with the Irish Times in January 2016 “This move is about coming here, trying to get as much experience as I can, trying to get better, and trying to get to that international level. I’ve absolutely no doubts at all I made the right move. This is a great club with great support, I’ve never played in front of a stadium sold out so regularly. The boys and coaching staff are great and I’m really, really enjoying it.”, while this one is from a chat with the Irish Independent at the tail end of 2016 “A couple of years back I would have always looked at it (Ireland games) saying, ‘They’re doing this, why amn’t I there?’ I’d have taken it personally and pointed fingers at other people. Now, I just think everyone has a different role, everyone has different luck you know? I knew coming over to Northampton that I was going to kind of rule myself out of selection. But there’s a longer-term plan in my own head that I’m trying to work towards and hopefully it comes to fruition later on in life. I’ve openly said before that I want to play for Ireland, but you have to get to that standard first and you have to be consistent. I’ve mentioned stuff about Ireland before and it’s been misconstrued. What I’m trying to do is become the best player I can be, so that if the Irish opportunity ever opens up in the future that then I’m able to take it with both hands. That’s not to say I should be there now, but if it ever opens up I want to be ready to do that. Playing in the Premiership against quality opposition every week, even like Leinster back-to-back in the European Cup, allows you to grow, get better and learn from your mistakes. To get new experiences, it’s all part of getting to that international standard.
What strikes me is the inconsistency of ruling himself out of contention for Ireland by playing overseas for two season while referring to his desire to play international rugby in every interview he gives.
The themes of the 5 Up series are the need for a champion or mentor, competition for your place and the effect of injury. Hanrahan had good fortune with injuries while he was at Munster although he’s had a troublesome ankle while with Northampton. His competition at Munster was Ian Keatley, an international with four caps and three starts, two of which were earned on a tour of North America when there was a Lions tour on. Keatley is a good pro but he’s not a test level player and he’s not a club stalwart with a deep bank of fan capital. Which leaves the role of mentor and, as mentioned earlier, it looks from here that all parties (Hanrahan, Foley and Munster) lost out as perceptions hardened in negotiations.
The questions for Hanrahan to ask himself when he decided to leave Munster were would he find a team that needed an outhalf and a coach willing to back him more than Foley? By choosing Northampton he made it difficult to find the answers he wanted. Stephen Myler was the worst sort of player for Hanrahan to compete against for a spot, a tough hombre with a track record of consistency who was unlikely to miss any domestic action because of international duty and who had earned the coach’s favour over a number of years. Mallinder’s a good coach but in Hanrahan’s situation you’re not looking only for guidance, you’re looking for someone that will pick you consistently. Gloucester would have been a better bet as there was no dominant outhalf at Kingsholm but that didn’t happen.
I think he went for the cash more than any other reason and that if he wants to play for Ireland as much as he says then he’ll have to play in Ireland and accept what he’s offered until he’s an international.
As we mentioned last year, there’s no confusion about Luke McGrath’s position and while he has been around the Leinster squad for a while now (he made his debut from the bench in ‘11/’12), he is only now first choice. When it came to the big games at the end of the 15/16 season, Leinster stuck with Reddan who Cullen obviously knew well and trusted. Although the older man’s breaking threat had diminished, his decision making was quicker and more adroit than McGrath’s. Reddan went back to civvy street while still first choice and his departure seemingly cleared the way for McGrath to take over. The recruitment of Jamison Gibson-Park provides McGrath with competition and left Irish rugby with two NIQ scrum halves at two of the provinces. Ruan Pienaar, Ulster’s favourite adopted son, has taken the fall made necessary by that situation. Gibson-Park is young, provides a breaking threat and has experience at a high level. He won’t be missing during the international window and if I were picking the Leinster team, he’d be my first choice scrum-half.
McGrath has reined in his habit of waving his hands at the back of rucks when he should be controlling the tempo of the game but I don’t think he’s developed sufficiently for a player who made his starting debut five seasons ago.
Scrum half is an extremely influential position so it is difficult for a young player to have honed his decision making ability to the required level before he has served his apprenticeship. It’s as much an art as a science and a great scrum half has a natural creativity along with the ability to think fast and slow. While McGrath has myriad qualities, I’m not convinced that he has this instinctive trait and I’m curious as to how he develops his ability to turn the tide of a game in his team’s direction. The Irish scrum half he reminds me of is Niall Hogan who captained the national team in the 90s and received his medical degree while at RWC95. Hogan was as brave as a lion and captained every team he played for; he was a super rugby player but not a super technical scrum half.
Shane Layden played for Ireland at 7s during the summer of 2015 and made the decision to concentrate on the abbreviated version of the game during 15/16. He didn’t play for Connacht, the Eagles or Buccs all season but did feature in Zenica, Zagreb, Lisbon and Monaco with the national 7s team. The Monaco event was the repechage for the Olympics and after opening day wins against Samoa, Tonga and Zimbabwe, the team lost to eventual champions Spain and missed out on qualification.
Layden caught my eye as a try scoring winger at u20 level after playing in the centre for a Roscrea team beaten in the final of the schools’ cup. He impressed me with his combination of speed and footballing ability and I thought that he had a good chance to make it as a pro seeing as he was with Connacht and that squad depth has long been an issue in the West.
The themes that define the 5 Up series are the impact of injuries at the early stage of a player’s career, the competition for a spot in the squad and the importance of a promoter who is prepared to provide opportunity. Layden was given another year in Connacht’s academy due to his injury record and started two Pro12 games at the beginning of the 14/15 season, both at full back. The impression made wasn’t enough to keep Mils Muliaina at bay and the centurion All Black started five of the next six games which brought in the new year before Tiernan O’Halloran made the fifteen jersey his own in March 2015.
Layden is in a strange sort of professional rugby limbo. The 7s team does not pay well (at all?) at the moment but does offer the opportunity to play on a global stage and become an Olympian. The game is in its infancy in Ireland and is still finding its role in the national structure. Is it an end to itself, with players making a decision to focus on 7s to the exclusion of all else (like Layden) or is it part of a broader education for players that complements the 15 man game (like Tom Daly in the 4 Up 2013 group)? How is the player base funded and who makes the decision about the level of focus? Doubtless, Nucifora will figure prominently in both decisions.
The 2012 u20 crop was a good vintage and had a memorable JWC, beating hosts, and eventual champions, South Africa in the group stages as well as England and France along their way to a fifth place finish. Conor Gilsenan was captain of the team during the 6N while Hanrahan was one of three players nominated for World Junior Player of the Year. Both are now plying their trade in England, neither as first choice while Shane Layden is no longer a pro player.
We labelled Year 2 (away from u20) as “the end of the beginning for the first 5 Up class”, which makes this time the meat of a player’s career. It’s no longer a development game, it’s now the part where potential means that you haven’t done anything yet (to steal a line from Bill Parcells).
Of this cohort of players, the story of JJ Hanrahan is the most curious. Things could still work out well for Hanrahan because he’s very good but the last two years have not been as productive as they might have been. A rugby player’s career is relatively brief, the graph can rise swiftly given the correct set of circumstances and the international game remains the pinnacle. There’s a number of twists and turns in each story but injury, the competition and gaining a patron are central to each. Paddy Jackson now has nineteen caps while Joey Carbery has three. Time moves fast in such a short career and Hanrahan’s decision making and the advice he received seem questionable.
Henderson’s physical abilities provide him with an advantage over the competition but will he become a great second row by playing in the back row for Ulster? Luke McGrath is in his fifth season of professional rugby and has had as many tail winds as could be hoped for in a career at Leinster but can he make a challenge to Conor Murray?
All that aside, the kids are alright and Ireland post O’Driscoll and post O’Connell beat South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in 2016. We’ll look at the demographics that define this generation elsewhere but the structures put in place to serve Irish rugby are functioning well and the future seems brighter now than it did after the 2015 RWC.