As Joey Carbery and Jacob Stockdale lined up against each other at Ravenhill, it was noted that four years ago, at the time of the 2015 World Cup, neither had made their provincial debuts.
They weren’t alone. Of the 17 members of Joe Schmidt’s 32-man squad in Japan who earned Test debuts after the 2015 World Cup, five — Carbery, Stockdale, Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Jordan Larmour — had not represented their provinces at senior level in 2015.
As a new cycle begins towards France 2023, it might offer hope and not a little incentive to the current crop of Academy and Under-20 hopefuls with eyes on the next World Cup.
There is a long road ahead and many may not even make it as far as a senior contract. Yet at the start of another World Cup cycle there dangles the carrot for a host of players on the cusp of a professional career.
IRFU performance director David Nucifora is in no doubt the opportunity exists for players to make the leap, via the provinces, to accelerated Test recognition, and the examples of Leinster’s Larmour, Porter and Ryan, Munster’s Carbery and Ulster’s Stockdale — all of whom were part of the 2018 Grand Slam success — shine brightest in that regard.
What’s more, Nucifora believes the opportunities are increasing for the next generation of talent currently on the conveyor belt in Irish rugby.
“One of the things that certainly gives a kick to everyone is looking at the progress that’s been made with a number of the young players, the talent that’s coming through in the system,” Nucifora said when delivering the IRFU’s review into the disappointing 2019 campaign.
“Not only is it coming through and being given the opportunity, which I think the provinces are doing a brilliant job with, but also that that talent is contributing to success at all levels of competition.
“A good health check for Irish rugby is to look at that, look at where we were during the World Cup period of PRO14 in 2015 compared to 2019, have a look at the playing stocks that were used in 2019 v 2015 — virtually everyone came out of the development pathway that was utilised in 2019 to fill the gaps that RWC created. It created great opportunities.
“We may not have gotten there in 2019 as far as the World Cup goes but if we can keep this thing building and we can learn from the things that we’ve taken out of this then by the time we get to 2023 anything is possible.
“We are capable of being able to be there at the pointy end of that competition.”
Following in the footsteps of older brother and Munster lock Fineen Wycherley, the loosehead from Bantry was a standout performer in a strong Ireland U20s pack during the 2019 Grand Slam campaign, as effective in the loose as he was dominant at scrum time.
With Tom O’Toole already hitting his straps in the Ulster front row, Ireland look to have established a line of tighthead succession behind Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter. There is a lot for Clarkson to muscle past but the Leinster academy man played a starring role in last season’s U20s Grand Slam and captained the side last weekend in Cork.
The third member of the Grand Slam-winning U20 front row, this Galway native is a hooker converted from the Corinthians back row who will hope to have an early career trajectory as impressive as Leinster’s hot-shot hooker Ronan Kelleher.
Came late to the U20s Grand Slam procession due to injury but the 6ft 6ins lock more than made an impression off the bench. Made his Leinster debut the following month and has kicked on again this season with a first start for the province against Dragons, playing the full 80. Has serious pace to go with an impressive power game.
Along with Leinster’s Charlie Ryan, it was Murray whose excellent performances in the Ireland U20 engine room kept Baird out of the starting line-up. An all-round athlete who spent time on the Roscommon Minors panel, his slender frame, at 6ft 7ins and 99kgs, was deployed in the Champions Cup earlier this month when he came off the bench for a senior debut in the come-from-behind home victory over Gloucester. And there’s a first start for him on Saturday when Connacht go to Leinster, which could pit him against home replacement Baird.
Leinster are never short of up and coming back-rowers with Will Connors and Caelan Doris both mightily impressive in the senior ranks this season. Penny, an intelligent and abrasive jackal threat, is right up there with them.
Given a five-star review by Graham Rowntree this week after a useful shift off the bench against Leinster, the academy third-year and former PBC captain looks oven-ready in the senior ranks having made his PRO14 debut in September. Impressive given his Ireland Under-20 career was limited by a serious knee injury, he also proved the class act at No.8 with two tries in Munster A’s recent win at Leinster A.
Already making his presence felt among Munster’s senior forwards with his on-field leadership, what Casey lacks in stature he more than compensates with confidence and authority. An adept kicker as well as a lively threat around rucks, the Limerick man is tipped for great things.
Started the U20s Grand Slam run in great form before injury intervened but the younger brother of fellow Leinster out-half Ross Byrne has bounced back and was man of the match for the senior side in their huge win over Ulster before Christmas, kicking seven conversions.
Started as the Ireland U20s ten in last Sunday’s annual challenge against his native Munster A/Development side and looked composed and assured. An excellent goal-kicker, he was captain of Bandon Grammar only last season and has already gained valuable game time with Cork Constitution in the League.
The Cork Constitution full-back from Crosshaven was a Munster Senior Schools Cup winner in 2017 alongside centre/wing Sean French and back-rower Jack O’Sullivan, joining the provincial academy in 2018. Wren played a significant role in the Ireland U20s title success last season, scoring one of the Grand Slam-clinching tries in Colwyn Bay to secure the bonus-point win over Wales.
Lured from underneath the noses of both Harlequins and England under the IRFU’s IQ programme, Irish-qualified Hyde, who joined the Ulster academy last June, was an impressive contributor to the U20s challenge win in Cork last weekend, with an excellent change of pace and footwork to create try-scoring opportunities from inside centre.
Ireland’s victorious captain for the first three games of the Under-20s Grand Slam run before injury struck. He had led from the midfield but grew up playing at out-half, helping Belvedere to back-to-back Senior Schools Cups in Leinster. Those playmaking skills were also honed as a Dublin minor hurler.
The track’s loss is rugby’s gain after Sexton, the fastest man in Irish schools athletics with a 10.49 second 100m best, threw his lot in with the team code and joined the Ulster academy. A wing or full-back, there is more than just straight-line speed to the 19-year-old’s game with good footwork contributing to his try tally on the way to being named Ulster A player of the year.
One of a number of Munster academy backs, the aforementioned Sean French included, hoping to follow the slightly older Shane Daly into the senior set-up, the Rockwell College star was an integral member of Noel McNamara’s Grand Slam squad who can play full-back or fly-half.
A hat-trick for the Ireland U20s last Sunday in Cork was one of the standouts of the class of 2019’s 43-27 win over their Munster counterparts. A clinical finisher and another star in the making off the St Michael’s conveyor belt.