Phil Rice looks at some of the young Irish rugby talent set to emerge next season
With the current lockdown giving us all time to sit back and reflect, it’s a chance to examine some of the emerging talent that we could be cheering on in the green jersey in the coming years.
Since last year’s disappointing World Cup – from an Irish perspective – a number of talented players have already attracted the attention of the Irish management team.
The likes of Caelan Doris, Max Deegan, Ronan Kelleher and Will Conners all performed with excellence for Leinster during the past six months.
While Robert Baloucoune and Tom O’Toole of Ulster have emerged during this season’s Pro14.
Those players have either played for Ireland or at least trained with the national squad during the Six Nations campaign.
Now we can consider those players who are just behind those mentioned above, who we can expect to emerge with their provinces during the 2020/21 season and possibly even for Andy Farrell’s Ireland team.
One player who caught our attention just before the virus called a halt to proceedings, was Leinster’s Ryan Baird.
Playing in his first start for his province against Glasgow Warriors, in Leinster’s final game of a truncated season, the 20-year old second-row scored a hat-trick in a man-of-the-match performance.
One of his tries was a solo burst from the halfway line, swerving past defenders and accelerating past speedy backs, he scored a superb try under the posts.
There was a collective gasp from the disbelieving crowd and a shocked expression on the Glasgow defenders, as he sped past them with incredible pace for such a big man.
Even on the back of his solitary start, the media attention on Baird has since been huge.
This was a special performance and certainly felt like the emergence of a future superstar.
Not only did he demonstrate electric pace but his muscular commitment to both loose and tight play was impressive.
Although he was outstanding for the Ireland Under 20s last year, this was still somewhat unexpected at such a level, and was one of the most sensational debuts in recent memory.
If he fulfils the sort of promise he demonstrated, Leinster supporters can lick their lips at the prospect of Baird and James Ryan in the engine room of their pack for several years to come.
Another player to make a spectacular debut for his province during February was Munster’s exciting open side flanker, John Hodnett.
Like Baird, it was Hodnett’s pace that first grabbed attention. The 21-year old scored a memorable try in his man-of-the-match performance for his province, in Munster’s big win over the Southern Kings.
Another product of Ireland’s 2019 Under 20s Grand Slam winning team, Hodnett is an abrasive player who possesses exceptional speed for a loose forward.
Ireland have suddenly discovered some really quality young back row forwards.
In addition to Doris, Deegan and Connors, Hodnett and Scott Penny, Leinster’s explosive 20-year-old openside flanker, promise to make Farrell’s future back row selection problematic to say the least. A nice problem to have though.
There has been some concern for Irish supporters in recent months, over the less than impressive form of fly-half and captain Johnny Sexton.
The concern is not only with Sexton’s form but also the fact that his deputy, Joey Carbery, has been so injury prone.
The Munster player has played very little rugby during the past two seasons due to a succession of nasty injuries.
Doubt has been cast over the robustness and suitability of Carbery for the modern ultra-physicality of international rugby.
To combat this concern has been the early promise of a talented pair of number 10s who have shown genuine talent for their provinces in the limited opportunities they have had.
Harry Byrne, the 20-year-old brother of Leinster fly-half Ross, has been sufficiently impressive for Farrell to draft him into the Irish squad as a development player.
The benefit he got from that experience was demonstrated in his form for Leinster during February.
He has the full range of skills for a top fly half and in addition has that inestimable quality, pace.
Leinster supremo Leo Cullen has been quick to promote young talent and Harry Byrne can expect considerable game time next season.
Another fly-half who has caught the eye is Ben Healy the Munster player.
The 20-year old, who also starred for Ireland’s Under 20 Grand Slam team last year, has been given opportunities for Munster during a season beset by injuries for their top fly-halves.
Healy has shown considerable coolness for such a fledgling talent and many Munster fans believe they may have unearthed the next Ronan O’Gara. High expectations indeed.
The strength of rugby in the Irish school system, along with the provincial academies and the Irish Under 20 set-up, have all contributed to the recent upsurge in this impressive emerging talent.
Leinster, in particular, have been keen to give these young players early exposure and have been richly rewarded, with the strength in depth they have been able to generate.
Irish rugby is certainly in a good place, even if the pain of Japan still lingers.
The future is bright, the future is youth.