Sunday 18 August 2019

Alan Quinlan: Unflappable next generation can lift Ireland to new heights

Carbery, Ryan and Stockdale are proof that hard work is paying dividends

Jacob Stockdale. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

We might only be playing Romania but as I scan the dressing-room containing Irish rugby royalty, my feelings of inferiority start to simmer.

"You're not f***ing cut out for this."

We're expected to win comfortably but it's still a World Cup pool game and I can't let the standards of Paddy Johns, Keith Wood and Conor O'Shea slip, not to mention keep up with the already obvious talents of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, who, like me, are listed on the bench.

I'm 25 years old and while my form has been peaking for Munster, my insecurities are weighing me down. Warren Gatland thinks I'm ready for international rugby but I'm still unsure.

I replace Andy Ward eight minutes into the second half to earn my first Ireland cap and while I am realising a lifetime ambition, it is another 16 months until I experience that unique high again.

When I see young players these days, the likes of Jacob Stockdale (21), Joey Carbery (22) and James Ryan (21) taking to international rugby so comfortably, I can't but admire their mental resolve, and feel a little bit envious.

All three are gifted rugby players but their fearless performances against South Africa last weekend - albeit Carbery and Ryan as replacements - displayed levels of self-assurance that point to lengthy international careers.

The three youngest players on the field made notable impacts which was a resounding victory for the underage structures we have in this country at provincial and international level. The trio, who all impressed during U-20 World Championship campaigns for Ireland in recent years, have played 11 Test matches between them and are yet to taste defeat, while Carbery has already completed a rare individual trifecta - victories against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

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Every now and again the odd player makes the step up straight from the U-20 grade into the senior side, but this is a bumper crop that could inspire a golden generation for years to come.

Carbery's elevation, in particular, has been nothing short of extraordinary.

I knew very little about Carbery when I first saw him lighting up the AIL final between Clontarf and Cork Con in May 2016 at the Aviva Stadium. You could tell the guy was talented but there was no way you would have believed that just six months down the track he would be playing his part in a first Irish win against the All Blacks. It was an astonishing rise.

His running, kicking and passing skills are obvious, but they would be lost on the hectic international stage if it wasn't for his unflappable temperament.

The way he nonchalantly stroked over the two conversions last weekend, one from the sideline, and delivered such a beautifully-weighted cross-field kick for Darren Sweetnam in the lead-up to Stockdale's try, were gift-wrapped with confidence. He looks like he was born to play rugby at the highest level.

Stockdale is a different specimen to Carbery physically but he is also a natural footballer with soft hands and nimble feet.

He may be an imposing 6ft 3ins and 103kg but he is far from a battering-ram wing, as he has shown numerous times for Ulster, and now for Ireland.

It was only his third Test match last Saturday and his first against Six Nations or Rugby Championship opposition, and boy did he deliver in style, even if the Springboks did look a shadow of their usual selves.

There was never a danger of the burly winger looking out of place in the close exchanges but the measured manner he maintained throughout, in attack and defence, made it hard to remember that you weren't watching a seasoned international.

Because of their range of skills, both players offer so much to an Irish attack irrespective of the numbers in between their shoulder blades. Both are so talented that they will eventually need to be accommodated somewhere, whether that is in the back-three, midfield, or additionally in Carbery's case, at out-half.

There are concerns that Carbery could end up being the next Ian Madigan, that he could lose his rugby identity because he is playing second fiddle to one of the best playmakers in the world, but Carbery's remarkable talents are so desirable and his attitude so on point it is hard to see him falling out of favour.


There may come a time where he wants to challenge Johnny Sexton for the No 10 spot at Leinster and Ireland but his best opportunity to nail down a starting spot with club and country right now is a little bit closer to his own posts.

He may need to be patient in the short term though because until Joe Schmidt shows more faith in other available out-halves, Carbery's role as No 2 to Sexton will likely see him continue to start Ireland's big Tests from the bench.

The emergence of Stockdale and Carbery feels like a changing of the back-three guard; with those kind of options available, it could put a pin in the international careers of experienced hands such as Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden and even Craig Gilroy.

I suspect Rob Kearney, who desperately needs a decent run injury-free, is nervously looking over his shoulder too.

I met James Ryan before the South Africa game and I was taken aback by how calm he was; a 21-year-old preparing to take on two of the best locks in the world and he looked like he was just out for a stroll on a Saturday morning.

All of these guys have benefited from being in professional systems from such a young age where the tributaries are treated with as much care as the main body of water.

In the earlier days of professionalism the senior team were seen as the only side keeping things afloat, academies were on the periphery and only starting out.

The hard work being done with our young players is paying off far sooner than expected and it's only a matter of time before some of this unruffled next generation are considered in the same breath as Wood and O'Driscoll - not that it will faze them.

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