The morning after the depressing night before, when Ireland’s failure to provide a single representative in the Champions Cup’s last eight was belatedly confirmed, and Nigel Carolan is introducing his latest batch of Ireland U20s to the media in a Dublin hotel.
It seemed fitting.
For months now we have listened to coaches and administrators big up the role the provincial academies and the underage player pathway in general has to play if the war with the richer clubs in France and England is not to be lost along with this season’s battles.
Carolan smiles when that wider picture is put to him. “So the Irish U20s are going to sort out the game?” he laughs.
Hardly, but the clamour for the younger generation to be given its head has been loud this season, particularly in Leinster where the decision to hand six starting European debuts for the visit of Bath two weekends ago produced such encouraging results.
Leo Cullen, however, has been consistent in his belief that youth can’t be thrust into elite rugby without due consideration and Carolan echoed that, by referring to a man whose omission from Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad caused some displeasure.
“There is real quality in this squad and there is guys that, without doubt, I can see playing international rugby, particularly up front. Again, that might take three or four years. We take Garry Ringrose for example; even this time last year we said he’s going to be an international rugby player. It’s a case of when.
“I personally think he’s being managed correctly in Leinster. He’s got a little bit of exposure, he’s been recognised by the national side and I think Leo and the guys in Leinster are doing the right thing for him. ”
The talent may be there but the question remains as to whether it is being primed in the best manner. There is, for instance, a large body of opinion that young players need to be made available more to the AIL clubs and not ring-fenced for provincial ‘A’ sides.
Five of six AIL coaches made reference to just that point in a piece that appeared on this newspaper’s website over the weekend, though Carolan believes the physicality of the ‘A’ interpros and British & Irish Cup are a significant step up from that.
“The more exposure they can get on a higher level is going to only benefit them, once it’s done with their interests at heart,” he explained.
Physiology plays a part in all this, too. Carolan oversaw an Ireland U20s side rich in backline potential last year, but a lack of beef up front played a part in his “frustrating” rookie season ending with tail-offs in both the Six Nations and the Junior World Cup.
Things look different this time.
The 30-man squad named yesterday boasts a gargantuan pack by Irish standards and, though that appears to be a one-off rather than the start of any new trend, it will at least allow this year’s class to compete on even terms with the likes of England, France and Wales.
Carolan, operating with a completely new backroom team, has just four of last year’s squad — Ulster wing Jason Stockdale and hooker Adam McBurney as well as Connacht’s Conan O’Donnell and another loosehead in Leinster’s Andrew Porter — eligible again.
Ulster centre Sam Arnold would have made that five but for injury while Munster out-half Bill Johnston is another absentee due to a shoulder reconstruction. Arnold may yet feature in the Six Nations while Johnston’s sights will be on the summer’s Junior World Cup.
Leinster are again bulk providers with a dozen of those selected, Munster’s improved showing at this level has seen them double last season’s representation of four players in the squad while Newcastle’s Brett Connon is the lone Exile.
IRELAND U20 Squad for the RBS U20 6 Nations Championship
James Bollard (Dublin University/Leinster); Kelvin Browne (Shannon/Munster); Peter Claffey (Galwegians/Connacht); Will Connors (UCD/Leinster); Max Deegan (Lansdowne/Leinster); Shane Fenton (Young Munster/Munster); John Foley (Shannon/Munster); Cillian Gallagher (Sligo/Connacht); Greg Jones (UCD/Leinster); Conor Kenny (Buccaneers/Connacht); Adam McBurney (Ballymena/Ulster); Sean O’Connor (Cashel/Munster); Conan O’Donnell (Sligo/Connacht); Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster); James Ryan (Lansdowne/Leinster); Dan Walsh (Cork Constitution/Munster).
Matthew Byrne (Terenure/Leinster); Brett Connon (Newcastle Falcons/Exlies); Shane Daly (Cork Constitution/Munster); Hugo Keenan (UCD/Leinster); Terry Kennedy (St. Mary’s/Leinster); Stephen Kerins (Sligo/Connacht); Paul Kiernan (UCC/Munster); Robert Lyttle (Queen’s University/Ulster); Johnny McPhillips (Queen’s University/Ulster); Conor O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster); Jimmy O’Brien (UCD/Leinster); John Poland (Cork Constitution/Munster); Jack Power (UCD/Leinster); Jacob Stockdale (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster).
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