Ireland’s recent endeavours in South Africa have shown the merits of introducing a dash of freshness into the camp. Several fringe players put their hands up in the intimidating environments of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
While they ultimately failed to finish out the job, several of the more inexperienced troop will have undoubtedly benefitted from the experience. Many of those will now look forward to playing important roles as Ireland seek to secure their first ever win against the All Blacks
Joe Schmidt has often been criticised for neglecting to pick untried, albeit form, players and that is unlikely to change as he chases that elusive victory over New Zealand. Lists of this nature therefore often tend to be a fruitless exercise. However, now that he is believed to have committed his long-term future to the country, perhaps he will consider those who will be at the heart of the side he is due to depart in 2019.
The likes of Garry Ringrose and Ross Molony have long been touted for international recognition, but there are several others who are more than capable of making the step up and contributing to both the short and long-term future of Ireland.
Following his brief consultancy period with Leinster, Graham Henry apparently stated that Irish rugby need not fear for the day that Jonny Sexton hangs up his boots. The reason? Joey Carberry.
Entering into the season as Leinster’s fourth choice out-half behind Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne, Carberry grasped his opportunities with aplomb and has been a revelation when tasked with steering the Leinster ship.
While Sexton’s return may hamper Carberry’s immediate first team hopes, the Auckland-born youngster has shown enough quality to suggest that he is at home at this level and is destined to thrive. There are aspects to his game that will undoubtedly need tending to, but his raw footballing ability and attacking nous ensures that an exciting future lies ahead of him.
With a two-try salvo against Treviso in the opening game of the Pro 12, Carberry announced himself on the domestic scene in some style. Needless to say, Joe Schmidt will certainly have noticed his compatriot’s impact.
As has been Schmidt’s want, Carberry can expect to be invited along to train with an extended Irish panel ahead of the November series. Should his form continue apace, he has every right to be included on merit. Carberry turns 21 on the eve of Ireland’s game against the All Blacks, but while he may yet be too young to be thrust onto the highest of test stages, he stands a reasonable chance of being Paddy Jackson’s standby when Ireland take on the Canadians.
Rassie Erasmus was left angered when Jack O’Donoghue was stretchered from the field during Munster’s 28-14 win over Edinburgh on Saturday. Thankfully, the 22-year-old returned to the sidelines before the end of the game, but such has been his influence that O’Donoghue has become an integral part of the South African’s plan for the province.
Despite having received a call-up to the Six Nations squad ahead of Ireland’s fixtures against Italy and Scotland, Schmidt resisted any temptation to summon O’Donoghue to South Africa in the summer opting instead for Ulster’s Sean Reidy and Rhys Ruddock of Leinster.
Yet competition on the international front is as fierce as ever. The likes of Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander remain top of the pile, Tommy O’Donnell remains in the mix while Josh van der Flier’s return to form at the weekend will not help O’Donoghue’s claims.
However, with Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony still on the comeback trail, O’Donoghue’s impressive early-season form means that Schmidt can’t overlook the Munster man. With all the tools to be a top class No. 8, Jamie Heaslip’s eternal tenure at the base of the Irish scrum may ultimately give way to the Waterford man.
While Rob Lyttle has been grabbing all the headlines with several notable performances for Ulster already this season, Darren Sweetnam has become a central figure in Erasmus’ Munster revolution.
The former Cork hurler joined the academy in October 2012 but struggled to make much of an impact whilst several of his colleagues pushed on. Erasmus now refers to the outside back as one of his ‘go-to men’ and simply puts his gradual progression down to his distracted rugby beginnings.
Although the back three department is a congested space, Sweetnam’s attributes are sure to have found their way onto Joe Schmidt’s radar. Defensively sound, tricky in attack and dominant in the air, the Bandon man is technically superior to a number of those at Schmidt’s disposal. If he continues in this vein, Sweetnam will get his opportunity in green sooner rather than later.
Highly regarded at Leinster, Leavy was pinpointed as a potential back row star of the future before Josh van der Flier jumped the queue and became an international player during the 2016 Six Nations.
Finally, having endured a sometimes-difficult beginning to his professional career, Leavy has seemingly overcome his injury problems to feature regularly in the Leinster side this season.
Featuring in all of the opening games of this campaign, Leavy has proven himself to be a valuable asset in Leo Cullen’s squad. Ironically, given that it is one of Leavy’s principle attributes, his versatility may have counted against him last weekend.
Having been shifted about between 6, 7 and 8 (performing well in each) Leo Cullen preferred to call upon more regular custodians of those shirts in Heaslip, Van der Flier and Jordi Murphy on for the Ospreys’ visit to the RDS, while it was Rhys Ruddock who first emerged from the bench to replace the latter.
However, with several prominent displays already, including a superb evening in Edinburgh where he claimed two tries, Leavy’s resourcefulness stands his international prospects in good stead.
International recognition would be a fitting chapter in Alan O’Connor’s story.
Rejected by Leinster, O’Connor’s career seemed to be written off before it had even begun. Having failed to make the Ireland U-20s side for the Six Nations in 2012, O’Connor was subsequently included in the travelling party to the Junior World Championship in South Africa. However, before the squad flew out O’Connor was informed that he would have no place in the Leinster Academy upon his return. Allen Clarke of Ulster duly capitalised.
Despite Franco van der Merwe, Pete Browne, Dan Tuohy and O’Connor all competing for a spot in Ulster’s second-row, the 24-year-old has managed to become the frontrunner for the position on a weekly basis.
Following Paul O’Connell’s retirement last year, Schmidt has looked to several options to fill a considerable void. One of those, O’Connor’s Ulster colleague Iain Henderson (the man many see as being the most capable of filling those considerable boots), has been regularly shifted to accommodate the in-form Dubliner.
Furthermore, in what was something of a surprise, Connacht’s Quinn Roux earned a call-up in the summer and acquitted himself well. On that basis, O’Connor can’t be too far away.
Richard McElwee, Pundit Arena