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.
Stuart Olding has had two ACL reconstructions. That he is still playing professional rugby is impressive and a testament to his talent and resilience. The second ACL injury meant that 2015 was a year of rehab and it wasn’t until January 2016 that Olding was back playing for Ulster. He split his time between first centre and fullback making four Pro12 starts at each position. Towards the end of the season he came off the bench to replace McCloskey at first centre, offering an alternative first receiver, often on the opposite side of the breakdown, to Paddy Jackson. His versatility was also attractive to Joe Schmidt who picked him to tour South Africa and selected him to start the second and third tests as first centre.
Upon resumption of provincial rugby, Olding bounced between first and second centre before a groin injury halted his activity towards the end of 2016.
Olding’s given a few interviews where he has declared his preferred position as twelve
“Twelve would be my preference. I enjoy 12 because you’re close enough to the ball but you also have a lot of time on the ball as well and you can see things; try to pick some holes and be right in the mix, and that’s exactly where I want to be; right in the mix of everything.”
Olding’s main competition for that twelve spot is fellow international Stuart McCloskey, a prototypical gain line breaking, truck it up first centre. Olding is a creative, distributing second five who presents a different set of challenges to defences. He has acknowledged the challenge for the starting spot and reiterated his intention to play twelve
“There’s a hell of a lot of competition so I’d just be looking to get my foot in anywhere. Hopefully I’ll be able to nail down 12.”
Scannell “displayed good habits” as an underage player and made solid progress through the AIL with Dolphin, then the Munster A team where he played most of his rugby as an out half. He started three matches for Munster in the 14/15 season, two as centre, in a season when Denis Hurley had a lock on the twelve jersey. Hurley’s misfortune (he suffered a career ending calf injury) was Scannell’s opportunity and the older man made three starts at twelve in 15/16 before Scannell made the jersey his own in 2016, starting in 20 of 24 league matches since Christmas 2015. The highlight was probably his match winning drop goal against Ulster in Ravenhill which served as a reminder of Scannell’s rounded skill set.
Having played a lot of club and underage rugby at 10, Scannell was smart enough to identify which way the wind was blowing upon his arrival into the Munster senior squad
“I’ve played quite a bit at 10 and 12 over the last couple of seasons. No 12 is probably my preferred position really. I’ve been playing there for the last six or seven weeks which is great. It’s great to get a bit of consistent game time there. Having played a lot at 10 as well, it’s a great mix to my game in terms of having that extra kicking option and distribution as well as making the hard yards up the middle.“
Or, to paraphrase, I don’t play twelve that much but if you’re going to pick me there, I can learn to love it. Scannell’s club selection and thought process also seems astute and he revealed to Murray Kinsella why he chose Dolphin (Declan Kidney’s club) rather than Con when leaving school
“Niall had gone to Dolphin after school, they wanted me on board and I thought at the time, going into the sub-academy with Munster, that it was a club where I’d get a decent amount of game time, because there was lads involved with Munster in Con at the time. I went to Dolphin and played a lot there, as well as playing Irish 20s that first year out of school.”
In the same interview Scannell explained the benefits to having played at 10 and how he considered himself a second five-eighth.
“The 10 can’t always see what’s going on in front of him. He relies a lot on his centres and back three to feed that information in. [Part of my role is] giving him options in terms of distribution and to carry, I enjoy the physical side of things as well, so I like 12. It’s best suited to me. As a 12, you’re often deeper off the gainline and I feel like I have a bit more time on the ball and it’s a bit more comfortable. You can have a quick scan on what decision needs to be made. If the pass is on, pass. If there’s space in the backfield I have that kicking option as well, which is good to have as the second five eighth.”
I find it hard to think of Scannell without making comparisons with JJ Hanrahan. As a consequence of writing this series, I kept a closer eye on Scannell than on other players and he wasn’t heralded on the way up nor promoted too readily. In October 2013 he was in Munster A’s midfield with Ivan Dineen and Cian Bohane; he was still there in November 2015 beside Bohane and D’Arcy. With Denis Hurley locked in as twelve, Scannell wasn’t getting much of a look. This contrasted with Hanrahan who was the blue eyed boy coming from underage and whose ascent was managed carefully by Penney. The difference in how it has worked out for them is marked and Scannell has been involved with Ireland on match day this season while Hanrahan is in the wilderness- a salutary tale for those who see the grass as greener over the water. Sterling has taken a plunge in those two years as well; bummer. Scannell has always managed to make the step up because he’s able to do everything to a good standard, a trait evident at underage level. The question that remains after that is the ability to handle the physicality and Scannell has proven equal to the task. It wouldn’t be a surprise were he to join Henshaw and Olding as an international.
I must admit to not quite getting the fuss at first about Robbie Henshaw when watching him on TV. It wasn’t until seeing him play live that I realised what Elwood had spotted when selecting him to start for Connacht in his teens. He reminded me of an u20 selected to start an AIL game, possibly due to a raft of injuries, who the older guys encourage to stick to the basics and keep an eye out for. 80 minutes later when he’s smashed their representative back row and broken tackles to set up scores, everyone realises that he’ll be a fixture for more than a decade. Henshaw has a temperament and physicality that you can’t teach and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a big bloke either…but it’s about the Mental, as with all great players.
While all this year’s group are making good progress as professional players, Henshaw is on a different level. He was arguably Ireland’s player of the tournament at RWC15 and was part of Connacht’s title winning team once the internationals were integrated back into the provinces. The highlight of 2016 for many rugby fans will be his try against NZ in Chicago which copperfastened Ireland’s maiden victory against the All Blacks. It’s also worth remembering that a 14 man Ireland were defending their line in the final minute against South Africa in Newlands when JP Pietersen had a go at the corner, only to be denied by Jared Payne and…Robbie Henshaw.
That Pro12 victory is likely to be Henshaw’s last involvement with the western province for a number of years and he announced that he’d be moving to Leinster although it didn’t sound that straightforward.
“It was an extremely tough decision for me. A lot of lost sleep over it and it wasn’t an easy decision at all. It was very close in the end.”
There was a quote from Joe Schmidt about the summer tour to South Africa that reminded me of Henshaw more than any other player.
“They did a super job, and I think they’ll learn from it, but you can’t spend too much time learning. You’ve got to get to the level of mastering very, very quickly in this environment because you don’t get too many windows to play Test rugby in a season and you’ve got to optimise every window you get.”
If there’s been a feature of Henshaw’s career, it’s how capable he has been making the step up at each level. He made his debut against the US less than a week shy of his 20th birthday, missed the tour to Argentina after O’Driscoll’s retirement and stepped in against South Africa as a 21 year old. Since then, he’s looked to the manor born which is fortunate because as Schmidt says, there ain’t much time to learn.
Henshaw’s move to Leinster creates more competition for Tom Daly, captain of Ireland’s 7s team in their Olympic qualifying bid.
Matt O’Connor’s selection policy favoured picking players who weren’t really centres – Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden – ahead of Tom Daly. Ben Te’o was almost ever present from January 2015 once he recovered from a broken arm and provided a physical offloading presence to complement Gary Ringrose’s trailing, elusive skills in the Leinster midfield in 15/16 as Leo Cullen shaped his team.
Daly was failed by Matt O’Connor’s selection policy and he really needed to be played in a few matches during the 14/15 season in order to keep momentum and see how he got on. Part of the remit of provincial coaches in Ireland is to develop players from academy prospects into capable professionals and the main component of that is selecting them.
Daly’s 15/16 season was a mix of the humdrum and exotic as he interspersed matches against Moseley and Ealing in the B&I Cup with trips to Zagreb, Spain, Dubai and Monaco as Ireland dipped its toe in 7s water. Ireland were beaten by Spain in that Monaco repechage so failed to qualify for the Olympics.
It’s uncertain exactly where 7s stands in the national scheme of things; is 7s its own game or a different form of development for the 15 a side game? At the moment, in the early days of the program, it seems to be a bit of both and Nucifora talks about the 7s program being one of the different ways Irish rugby has of developing people. There’s also a brief interview with Tom Daly about the benefits of sevens which seem to be improved core skills (passing, tackling and running) and increased confidence.
Given a bit of consideration, the earlier question isn’t the correct one to provide insight. As usual in professional sport, more is revealed when you ask where the money comes from. Having challenged for Olympic qualification at 7s, Tom Daly, Rory O’Loughlin and Adam Byrne play 15s because a provincial contract (or a national one) is where a player can earn enough cash to sustain a professional career and provide himself with options. The 7s program will go on with different players participating, some of whom are amateurs with a high degree of application and others who are aspiring professionals.
This year’s group is exceptional in that all are playing professional rugby in Ireland which isn’t a given from a small sample size taken from one year. Henshaw’s move to Leinster means there’s no one playing out west and brings a few considerations to light.
One is that top class internationals don’t play that much for their clubs. Henshaw started six regular season league games for Connacht in their title winning season. Matt Healy and Bundee Aki both started 21 games and were rested by Pat Lam for the trip to Treviso in late April. He did, of course, start both knock out matches but Robbie Henshaw was not central to Connacht’s great season and Leinster don’t get the same value from him that Munster get from Rory Scannell.
Connacht’s victory also made me ask myself about which of the provinces could now wear Cinderella’s slipper and the answer that struck me when reviewing starting fifteens was Ulster. What’s going on there? Off the pitch things appear like they couldn’t be done any better. Ravenhill is redeveloped, attendances are excellent (a season low of 13,663 for the visit of the Scarlets compared to 7,405 for the Cardiff Blues trip to Cork) and there’s a strong sense of identity among their fans, #SUFTUM. On the pitch they’ve a bundle of talent but they can’t win anything. Olding is the focus of this piece, a guy who got capped just out of his teens and who still proved capable of playing international rugby after two knee surgeries. He’s good but he can’t get into the team every week because Ulster have so much talent. I believe that the brouhaha about Ruan Pienaar is a distraction more than anything else. Yes, it seems an arbitrary decision at this stage of his career but he can’t play for Ireland and the provinces have a role to serve the national team so I can see Nucifora’s logic, however inconsiderate it might appear.
Munster had training venues in different cities, no motorway connecting those cities and built the bigger stadium in the smaller city so couldn’t be accused of best practice but Munster win things. Connacht was almost wound up and have a ground with a maximum capacity less than half that of Ravenhill but Connacht have won something. Are Ulster the Arsenal of the Pro12? Is it that Ulster is too cosy, too insular with BBC Northern Ireland grousing about George Clancy, Stephen Ferris referring to “we” and no contrarian point of view whatsoever?
As is often the case, acceleration is more eye catching than absolute velocity. Stuart Olding was capped twice by Ireland on the 2016 tour but can’t nail down a starting spot at Ulster so Rory Scannell’s progress this season looks better. Tom Daly has only just made his starting debut for Leinster but his involvement with the 7s team provides another angle and poses questions about environment and alternate influences.
Olding has undoubtedly been the most unfortunate with injuries and has the greatest competition in the form of Choo-choo Stu. Jaco Taute’s short term stay shouldn’t disrupt Scannell’s long term development and the bit of competition is no bad thing. It looks like Henshaw and Ringrose’s participation with the national team will reduce the time spent playing with Leinster which should provide an opportunity for Daly. His placekicking ability should take some pressure off Joey Carbery if needs be, although he faces competition from Reid and O’Loughlin within the squad for game time.
D’Arcy and O’Driscoll held the national centre spots for the best part of a decade so the class of 2013 timed their arrival well. Olding and Henshaw formed an international centre partnership in June 2016 during the second test against South Africa in Johannesburg. Chances are that it won’t be the last international partnership to come from this quartet.