Tuesday 6 December 2016

George Hook: Young Irish stars being held back by provinces

Published 13/11/2015 | 02:30

Jonathan Sexton, Leinster
Jonathan Sexton, Leinster

The European Champions Cup opens this weekend and it could be over before it starts for Leinster; Munster will flatter to deceive; and Ulster mettle will be tested in France.

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The heady Heineken Cup days will soon be a distant memory; a throbbing city and stadium in Limerick unlikely; and most of all inventive back play choreographed by class number 10s will be missing.

Sad to say, the best hope for Irish rugby is that somehow one of the provinces will carve its way to the knock-out stages by playing conservative, unimaginative but winning rugby by the boot of accomplished goal-kickers.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the chances of an Irish success. There are no easy groups in this competition and Irish provinces can no longer count themselves among the cream of Europe's elite.

Leinster will benefit from the return of Jonathan Sexton, but with the head coach severely lacking in experience and an over-reliance on an ageing squad, it is hard to make a case for Leinster winning the tournament.

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Sunday's game against Wasps at the RDS would have been a prime opportunity for Sexton to expose Jimmy Gopperth for the ordinary player that he is, but a three-week suspension for the Kiwi fly-half has inadvertently saved his blushes.

Gopperth is a prime example of a wasted opportunity to develop Irish talent. Ian Madigan was in pole position to succeed Sexton when he left Leinster for Racing Metro, yet he was forced to spend the majority of the two seasons behind Gopperth on the Leinster bench. Leinster's form so far this season has been very average, but one would hope that the return of the Ireland internationals will spark a revival in fortunes. If they can't manage to beat Wasps at home in their opening game, they can forget about qualification for the knock-out stage

Tomorrow, Ulster face a difficult trip to Oyonnax in France, while Munster will have too much for Treviso at Thomond Park. It will be interesting to see if Simon Zebo gets the nod at full-back. Felix Jones's rotten luck is Zebo's good fortune and some regular game time at 15 could see the Cork player put serious pressure on Rob Kearney ahead of the Six Nations Championship.

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If Garry Ringrose had been born in New Zealand, he would have been playing at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The 21-year-old's talent in the centre has been blatantly obvious for nigh-on three years, yet last weekend was his first start in his preferred position for Leinster.

Leo Cullen's decision to select Ringrose on the wing for three Pro12 games this season has been a complete waste of time. If the Leinster coach had any courage in his convictions, he would have started Ringrose at outside centre for each of the first six rounds of the competition.

And ahead of the opening round of games in the Rugby Champions Cup this weekend, Ringrose would have some solid first-team experience at centre under his belt. Instead, he has played just once in his preferred position and it has to go down as an opportunity wasted.

Bear in mind that this kid, according to his Ireland under-20 coach Nigel Carolan, has every ingredient necessary to play at the highest level of the game. He is that good. Yet, because he is Irish, his development is being stunted and elongated unnecessarily.

Ireland's history of nurturing young talent is verging on shameful. The overly-conservative selection policies of head coaches, who seem to favour sticking with the tried and trusted ahead of backing the younger player, is very frustrating.

Last year, Ringrose was nominated for the Under-20 Player of the Year, but narrowly lost out to Handrè Pollard of South Africa. Pollard was the starting fly-half for the Springboks in the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand last month, while Ringrose was struggling to get a look-in at Leinster.

There are numerous other examples. One can make a strong argument that Luke McGrath should be the first-choice scrum-half for Leinster this season, yet he is still trying to usurp 35-year-old Isaac Boss to be the second-choice number nine for his province.

This does not happen in New Zealand or Australia and it is a damning indictment of Ireland's prehistoric approach to player selection.

Placing a value on experience is fine, but it is pointless having young guys coming through if they are not being given a proper chance. Why is Michael Bent still contracted at Leinster? Or Boss? These guys have had their chance and are entering the twilight of their professional careers. They should be deemed surplus to requirements and told to move on.

I am ready to be surprised by tea time on Sunday.

Irish Independent

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