'Three amigos' lead Ireland's next generation
It's not quite USA 94, when the Irish international soccer team unfurled its 'three amigos' upon an unsuspecting public. But it's close enough. As Ulster's hat-trick of rookies – inside-centre Luke Marshall, wing Craig Gilroy and out-half Paddy Jackson – milled around the Irish rugby team's Savoy Hotel base in Limerick, it was difficult not to sense the infectious enthusiasm.
The IRFU are allowing kids to go free in Thomond Park tomorrow in the light of dreadfully sluggish ticket sales and the youthful faces on these Ulster cherubs makes one suspect they could avail of the generous offer.
Instead, they will be hoping to lay down viable claims to a lasting career in green as Ireland continue to endure an enforced regeneration in the absence of so many leading characters.
And, as is the way of newcomers, their innocence is almost unnerving as, so soon after finding their feet in the Irish camp, they are suddenly being unleashed as the vanguard of the next generation.
Jackson, so laid back he seems almost horizontal, is not shy about revealing his, em, appetite.
"The best thing about being in camp?" he muses. "has to be the food. 'Rala' the kitman sorts you out. It's all quite new to us, but I quite like the food.
"Whenever you want you can go and have a wee munch. Why not? Just getting to know the boys is good craic."
Ireland's new captain, Jamie Heaslip, is immediately concerned. "We'd better check his car before he goes home," he smiles.
Marshall unblinkingly agrees. "Yeah, the same as Paddy, I like the food as well."
But their appetites are now sated in other ways too. When the team was called out earlier this week, the three just looked at each other and smiled.
"Yeah, it is surreal," says Gilroy. "You just have to make sure that you don't get star-struck by it all or let it get to you.
"It's something we've been forging towards since we started playing rugby, I suppose. Now that we've gotten that opportunity we want to make the most of it and not just sit back."
And while they won't be receiving caps, it is difficult to know if the newcomers are more excited about each other's senior debuts or their own.
"I'm quite happy that the first time I'm playing for Ireland will be alongside Paddy," gushes Marshall. "I've known him for quite a few years. We think the same way and we instinctively know what the other is going to do."
If a sense of staleness had crept into this underperforming squad, perhaps this latest wave of new blood could be just the thing to sweep away the cobwebs.
Given that Iain Henderson also made his first start for Ireland, not to mention the presence of Dan Tuohy and Darren Cave in a side bristling with as much northern talent as has been seen in green since 2005, the evidence of Ulster's recent revival is inescapable.
What brought them to this level will help them, but it will not define them. Jackson sums the mood up succinctly.
"It's good to have a few Ulster guys I've grown up with for many years there too," he agrees. "It's going to be a great day. It shows the strength of Ulster, that we've been feeding into the national set-up. "But it's not about Ulster this weekend. It's all about Ireland and the team."
Gilroy agrees: "It's good playing with guys who you've been playing with for a long time. It helps my game and their game, because we just know how to play rugby together and we can work off one another."
Marshall, an out-half in his school days, knows he can dovetail comfortably with Jackson.
"I like to get my hands on the ball and help the out-half make a few decisions, take the heat off the out-half," he says, though Jackson is slightly unnerved when Marshall refers to himself as "small."
"It definitely helps that he has experience at No 10," avers Jackson. "If I'm in a ruck, he can step in and take the heat off.
"I wouldn't say he's small, though. If the traffic is coming down my channel, I hope I'll be able to step out of the way and leave it to Luke!"
Jackson speaks as Jackson does; impish and playful, not fearful of set-backs, of which is he is already very conscious, conspicuously after the chastening experience of last season's Heineken Cup final against Leinster.
Gilroy, who scorched the earth on his last appearance in Thomond, skimming past new international colleagues Simon Zebo and Denis Hurley en route to a memorable Heineken Cup quarter-final try, appreciates the nonchalant qualities of his out-half.
"Yeah, he's very laid-back," the wing relates. "Which I think is what you want in a 10. He doesn't stress on the pitch and seems to have a lot of time on the ball.
"He's good at organising the whole team... whatever we need to do, our plans and plays and stuff.
"He just keeps getting better and better. He keeps learning and is always willing to learn. You'd see him chatting away with Jonny Sexton and he has learned loads from him.
"I've actually seen an improvement in him already, just in the space of a few months since the start of the season and then even again in the short number of weeks that he's been in camp.
"That's great for him because he's learning loads. I think he's a fantastic player at the minute, but he's still not even half-way where he can be.
"He doesn't usually suffer from the spotlight. Obviously, in the final last year, it might have gotten to him a wee bit. But he's bounced back straight away from that and learned a lot from it. He's the kind of player who doesn't feel pressure as much as other players would."
Given the circumstances surrounding this match, the pressure doesn't seem to be as intense as might otherwise normally be the case.
Then again, these players are eyeing a more permanent place in this side and they are surely hopeful of being at the forefront of a new Ireland.
"That would be great in an ideal world," considers Gilroy, "but it's a long time away. Hopefully, things go well and we can continue to pull on the green jersey as much as possible."
This could, indeed, be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Ulster's rising sons and the national team.
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