Friday 23 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: Stockdale and Ryan the breakout figures as Joe Schmidt prepares for Six Nations


Jacob Stockdale on his way to scoring Ireland’s second try despite the efforts of Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale on his way to scoring Ireland’s second try despite the efforts of Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

James Ryan towers above the squinting eyes of his inquisitors, a square-rigged giant, cold to any invitation for giddiness.

Today's rugby prodigies don't advertise their emotions. They might not be long out of school, yet they speak like men of the world, siding only with the most skeletonised, perfunctory self-analysis. Ryan is six and a half feet tall, seventeen stone and solid from head to toe. Yet, when Ireland's relationship with Argentina grew such jagged teeth at the '99 World Cup, he was aged three and - presumably - ambivalent to the angst in Lens.

Likewise his fellow Hercules, Jacob Stockdale.

So it's quite possible they found our pre-occupation with history and bad blood a faintly abstract concept last week. Both are colossal young men, exceptionally good at what they do and - on early impressions at least - indifferent to the conventional stress of finding their bearings in an almost malevolently physical world.

If this November series delivered an abundance of good tidings for Joe Schmidt, Ryan and Stockdale looked the breakout stories.

Both just 21, yet also undeniably in the frame for Six Nations debuts in Paris on February 3. Stockdale's two tries on Saturday, the second one especially, spoke of such thunderously uninhibited power, it became difficult to see how anything bar injury will keep him from a starting berth in Stade de France.

Schmidt spoke afterwards of the "real athleticism" that allowed him arc around Puma full-back, Joaquin Tuculet, having just smashed the defensive line. Yet, he felt the need too, to recall occasional hesitation in defence and, despite Stockdale standing almost 6' 3" in his socks, some moments aerially that "were a bit of a battle for him".

Listening, you couldn't but sense the Irish coach trying to douse the fires of potential hysteria here. For Stockdale, at times, looked unstoppable.

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He and Ryan were team-mates as schools players at the 2014 Under-18 European Championships in Poland, the latter admitting that Stockdale instantly stood out. "He always stood out in fairness" reflected Ryan. "He's a big winger, who's got great feet. He's fast.

"All the attributes you look for really!"

Still, you could understand Schmidt's inclination to permit no daydreams here. Those who know him best reckoned that the concession of three second-half tries would have incensed the Irish coach. His team, after all, led 20-0 after Stockdale's second touchdown, having returned to the field to the booming thud of Rag'n'Bone Man's 'Human'.

"Take a look in the mirror

"And what do you see?

"Do you see it clearer?

"Or are you deceived, in what you believe?"

Two of the Puma tries came from rudimentary grubber kicks that undressed Ireland's aggressive, flat defence with faintly disquieting ease. Against fresher, slicker opposition, there would scarcely have been the cushion to absorb that frequency of blows. Hence Schmidt's reluctance to embroider the day with garlands.

Still, it's doubtful Ireland has ever emerged from a November series with a greater depth of options.

Jonathan Sexton apart, there seem viable alternatives at every turn now, the likes of Ryan, Stockdale, Adam Byrne and Chris Farrell highlighting the breadth of young hands being raised on the doorstep of Schmidt's fifth Six Nations' tournament as Irish coach.

The consensus on Ryan, especially, has been generating possibly intemperate comparison with a young Paul O'Connell. Rory Best spoke earlier in the week of the boy's natural leadership qualities, so luminous in his captaincy of Ireland to a runners-up spot at the 2016 Junior World Championships.

Ryan then had a senior try-scoring debut against the USA on Ireland's summer tour, during which Schmidt got a close-up of the impressive man already breaking out of a boy's body. On Saturday, he might have ended up mildly frustrated to get just 49 minutes against the Pumas' hard, grizzled, second-row (officially he was replaced because of a knock to the shoulder), yet few had seen anything to diminish the sense of a lengthy international career on the horizon here.

And, in the Mixed Zone after, his steely glare and tightly clipped interception of any plaudits coming his way made clear the authority of someone indifferent to commotion.

Asked about Best alluding to his leadership qualities, young James Ryan responded flatly "I think he expects that from everyone to be honest. I think we've all got to be leaders out there. It's not really up to one or two lads. So I think that's kind of more what he meant."

And he spoke of Argentina's physicality in the way a seasoned fisherman might mention encountering some squalls on a lake.

It was, he agreed, "a step-up". But beyond that? "They're big guys, you just have to look at them. They certainly come flying in. They're a very physical side as they always are. But I think we were well able to take them on there."

Had he felt comfortable at this level?

"Yeah I am....feel comfortable enough. So, yeah, I'm happy."

There was an almost emotionless chill to how he spoke about what, by any stretch, had to be a tumultuous day in the life of a young rugby man. But then, that - palpably - is the personality Schmidt encourages in the young breed rolling through. To abstain from needlessly feeding the prose now dancing around them.

That isn't our instinctive, national condition of course. Yet, with Schmidt at the helm and this new breed of steely-eyed, shoulder-shrugging giants on the horizon, it is hard not to believe that Irish rugby - World Cup hosting bids apart - is now in position to set new parameters of ambition.

And Ryan and Stockdale should be at the fore of this story long after the carnage of Rugby World Cup 2023 passes into history as some kind of gloomy aberration. Off the field, we may struggle to understand how the rest of rugby sees us.

On it, we may now be building well enough to not have to unduly care.

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