It was in March of 2011 when I first formed the opinion that the future of English rugby was in safe hands having just witnessed their Under 20 side dish out a 15-46 hammering to Ireland in a Six Nations clash in Athlone.
Afterwards I suggested to England’s Director of Operations, Rob Andrew that at least six of that side would progress to the full international stage in the not too distant future. He smiled and asked me to name names.
To be fair, Mike Ruddock’s Irish team was understrength given that Ulster’s Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy were all involved in a Magners League game against the Dragons on the same night in Ravenhill. Of the Irish side that started that game, only Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran has sampled Heineken Cup rugby to date while the stand out player in green was Munster’s JJ Hanrahan.
This time last season, English rugby was in disarray after a disastrous World Cup. Things couldn’t get much worse after the iconic Martin Johnson was left with no option but to step aside, but the leaking of three confidential reviews carried out by Premiership rugby, the players union and the RFU signalled a new low.
That all changed last Saturday with an incredible 17-point win over reigning world champions New Zealand. In England’s hour of need, new coach Stuart Lancaster placed his trust in youth and despite pressure after the defeats to Australia and South Africa, his trust in a young squad was spectacularly rewarded.
In the aftermath of Ireland’s superb win over Argentina, Declan Kidney should pay close attention to what is happening in England. Twenty months on from that win in Athlone, four of that England side featured in Saturday’s historic win with Joe Launchbury and Owen Farrell starting while Jonathan Joseph and prop Mako Vunipola were introduced off the bench.
Manu Tuilagi was originally supposed to start in that Under 20 game but was diverted to the England Saxons squad.
That is an incredible throughput in such a short space of time especially the two in the front five. There will be more to come with Leicester’s George Ford putting pressure on Toby Flood for a starting place at Welford Road — he hasn’t reached his 20th birthday yet — while Elliot Daly and Christian Wade are starring in the Aviva Premiership with Wasps.
Ireland, due primarily to injury, were forced to give youth its fling last month and like England were instantly rewarded. Lancaster is now ahead of the chasing pack in Europe in terms of building a side for the 2015 World Cup — he will need a massively competitive squad after landing a horror draw in London on Monday — but Ireland also need to keep the faith when sitting down to select their squad for the Six Nations championship.
This is always a difficult time for the provincial coaches as they are stripped of their key personnel for weeks in advance of the crucial back to back phase of the Heineken Cup. On this occasion however, the cause of Munster and Ulster has been aided by a very productive months work away in national camp.
A number of players from those two provinces left as kids but returned as fully fledged internationals with reputation enhanced. Consequently they’ll add far more to the provincial mix over the next fortnight. Ulster are the principal beneficiaries with Gilroy and Iain Henderson now ready to make a real impact. In addition Jackson and Marshall will have their confidence enhanced by encouraging showings against Fiji and while he already had two caps under his belt, Chris Henry came of age as an international player with two excellent performances against South Africa and Argentina.
All of a sudden, when you look around that Ulster dressing room, you begin to notice that quality players are not even making the match day squad and competition for places is now at an all-time high. While their unbeaten record will be severely tested by Northampton on Friday night — the five-day turnaround from their game against the Scarlets on Sunday has done them no favours — they now have the talent to succeed against an opponent who tamed them in the Heineken Cup quarter final only eighteen months ago.
Likewise in Munster, Dave Kilcoyne’s status has sky-rocketed on the back of his November exploits and while Simon Zebo was never found wanting in the confidence stakes, the fact that he has two more internationals under his belt, in the less familiar surrounding of full back, also adds to the options open to Rob Penney as he continues to redefine the way Munster are playing.
Continuing on the theme of youth, 22 year-old CJ Stander could hardly have made a better home debut on Saturday night, scoring two tries before half time and showing the kind of pace in the back row that made David Wallace such a standout player for over a decade. For good measure, just like the 7a bus long ago, two arrive at the same time with Tommy O’Donnell also showing blistering pace in successive games against Cardiff and Glasgow.
To play the type of game that Penney is promoting, it helps to have forwards with the explosive pace and power to exploit the space his game plan is espousing. Therefore the loss of Stander for the remainder of the pool stages due to a broken hand and the doubts surrounding the availability of O’Donnell seems cruel in the extreme. Munster were offered a brief glimpse of what Stander has to offer before having it cruelly dashed from them at a crucial stage of the season. He looked tailor-made for the Saracens challenge and will be missed.
Ironically, given the quality of younger players that has come through the Leinster system over the last few years, Joe Schmidt is struggling to put a back-line together for the game of the weekend against Clermont Auvergne on Sunday. With Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald all out with injury, perhaps the time has come to trust the undoubted talents of Andrew Conway who looked a star in the making in successive Junior World Cups with Ireland.
Since then, due primarily to an unfortunate run of injuries, he has seen two of his fellow Under 20 wingers in Zebo and Gilroy overtake him and win their first caps. Ironically the same three Leinster backs were also ruled out when Leinster last played at the Stade Marcel Michelin two years ago which opened the way for Eoin O’Malley and Fergus McFadden to show what they had to offer.
Conway impressed me against Zebre last weekend and could be the latest of the promising young guns in this country to make a name for himself if entrusted by Schmidt to do a job for Leinster next weekend.
As New Zealand found out against England, never discount the value that youthful exuberance brings to the mix. Hopefully all the provinces will benefit on that front over the weekend and leave Kidney with some very difficult choices to make next February.
And in case you’re wondering, three of my choices from that England Under 20 side are still to be capped.
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