Tuesday 18 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Future of Irish sport is rugby-shaped

Leinster’s Jordan Larmour evades the tackle of another rising star, Jacob Stockdale of Ulster, on his way to scoring a try. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Jordan Larmour evades the tackle of another rising star, Jacob Stockdale of Ulster, on his way to scoring a try. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

This is Irish rugby's age of the prodigy. First came Garry Ringrose. Less than 14 months ago he made his international debut and a fortnight later was scoring a try against Australia of such slippery, twisting, mind-bending brilliance that the referee had the TMO check it out because it seemed there was no legal way the centre could have slalomed through the visiting defence so easily. The try turned out to be kosher and was followed at the start of 2017 by a memorable solo effort against Italy.

When, in April, Ringrose bagged an even more spectacular score against the mighty Clermont-Auvergne on their home turf, dodging and weaving like an American football running back manoeuvring though a defensive line before travelling over half the pitch to touch down, it was clear we were talking about not just a talent but a special talent, one with the wow factor. Here, we agreed, was the kind of player who only comes along once in a generation. There were even comparisons with Brian O'Driscoll, the kind of player who only comes along once in a lifetime.

Yet those unforgettable moments haven't stopped Garry Ringrose slipping off the radar somewhat in recent times. It's not just that the kid has missed a lot through injuries, it's that there have been so many other, to use the catchy American phrase, 'phenoms' to take on board. Just before the Clermont game, for example, we had to get our head around what another 21-year-old, Joey Carbery, might be capable of. Against Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter-final he was outrageously good at fullback, setting up two tries and looking to have all the time in the world as he ripped the visiting defence asunder.

When Carbery produced a similar display in the first match of this season's Champions Cup against Montpellier, but this time from outhalf, he seemed a unique talent, a guy already equipped to excel at international level in almost every back-line position. For a couple of weeks we could talk about no-one else. This really was the kind of player who only comes along once in a generation.

If the question "who is Jacob Stockdale?" had come up in a quiz 12 months ago, quite a few Irish sports fans might have guessed he was a character from a BBC costume drama. You know who he is now. As the Ulster wing followed a try-scoring debut against South Africa with a man of the match performance when plundering a pair of five-pointers against Argentina, once more you had the impression that this was a talent of a different order than we are used to seeing in these parts. Big, athletic and a devastating finisher, Stockdale seemed more like one of those unstoppable strike runners the All Blacks, and no-one else, produce on a regular basis.

Yet Stockdale's spell as the cynosure of all eyes has also been pretty short-lived. Lately it's been Jordan Larmour time as Leinster unveiled another back of apparently unlimited potential. When Munster hoisted a kick towards him in the 69th minute of a Pro14 match at Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day, the tyro fielded the ball and then dismissed the first two tacklers with a couple of audacious sidesteps that instantly evoked memories of Phil Bennett's famous move for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973.

Bennett's escape created perhaps the greatest team try of all time. Larmour's led to one which must be pretty high up the individual rankings. Haring over the halfway line, he sidestepped another defender and went all the way, holding off Simon Zebo before scoring. Last week against Ulster he scored another couple of tries and looked dangerous every time he had the ball. He looks like the kind of player who . . . well, you know the score.

You could say that the hailing of so many players as possible messiahs denotes fickleness among Irish supporters or a tendency towards hype in our media. But I don't think that's true in this case. All four players deserve the fuss that's been made about them. The stuff they've done indicates spectacular potential. In this case hype seems the most rational response. No matter how often you look at Ringrose's try in Clermont or Larmour's in Thomond - and what more demanding arenas are there in which to prove your worth? - it's impossible to suppress a sense of exhilaration.

More exhilarating still is that while the quartet are the most eye-catching current prospects, the list of exceptional young talent does not stop with them. James Ryan is our most exciting young second-row since Paul O'Connell came on the scene, number eight Max Deegan is already showing signs of fulfilling the potential which saw him named World Under 20 Player of the Year in 2016, prop Andrew Porter's highlight reel run against Ulster confirmed the impression that he, like his two aforementioned Leinster colleagues, may be something out of the ordinary.

Almost as incredible as the rate of progress displayed by these wunderkinder is that Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson are still just 25 and Robbie Henshaw 24. In less glittering times there'd be enormous excitement about the emergence of players like Dan Leavy, Darren Sweetnam, Josh van der Flier, Adam Byrne and Luke McGrath.

So why so much great young talent right now? Producing one prodigy might be a lucky break but creating several requires more than good fortune. Irish rugby's current strength is sometimes credited to the game's widening base and I've no doubt that this will come into play in the future and make things stronger still. Yet it's striking how traditional the route taken by most of the latest up-and-comers has been.

Ringrose is a product of Blackrock College, Larmour and Porter attended St Andrew's, Ryan and Deegan went to St Michael's while Stockdale and Henderson are the products of two Ulster schools' powerhouses, Wallace High School, Lisburn and the Royal Belfast Academy respectively. Carbery was educated in Athy but repeated his Leaving in Blackrock where he won a Leinster Senior Cup. Furlong, who went to a mainly Gaelic games-playing school, is a notable exception.

I used to be sceptical about the importance accorded to the schools rugby competitions. Then I watched the live TV coverage on eir Sport of the Leinster, in particular, and Munster Senior Cups and was astounded by the standard of play. In terms of technical skill, tactical sophistication and creative intelligence, elite schools rugby is the jewel in the crown of Irish underage sport. It is far, far closer to its senior equivalent than the Hogan or Croke Cups or for that matter a youth soccer international. Its very best players seem to already have one foot on the senior ladder. Remarkable work is obviously being done.

When we talk about grassroots underage coaching in this country, we tend to focus on the GAA and to a lesser extent on soccer. Yet there's obviously tremendous work being done in rugby clubs which enables players to take advantage of what's available at the top schools. We hear very little about this, though I'm sure the sacrifices involved in coaching underage rugby in your average small town are no less than those involved in coaching underage GAA. And the opportunities for local glory are considerably less.

That may be changing. Last year's Irish under 20 rugby team included three players from my local club in Skibbereen whose under 16 team won the Munster title. Two outstanding prospects from big local GAA Clubs, Castlehaven and Skibbereen, have opted for rugby and signed contracts with Munster.

They won't be the only ones to take this route. For exceptional and ambitious young athletes a couple of factors make rugby especially appealing. The challenge is enormous, making it at provincial level is difficult enough but the prospect of testing yourself at international level is irresistible to the kind of peculiarly driven youngster who excels at sport. There's also the fact that you can make money from playing the game, something even more appealing at a time when inter-county GAA seems to offer the worst of both worlds, demanding a professional level of commitment for amateur recompense.

The combination of the expertise at schools level with the introduction of new blood from areas where rugby was in the past a largely marginal game may well mean that the future of Irish sport is rugby-shaped.

If you think I'm getting a bit over-excited given that neither national nor provincial teams have won major honours in recent years, perhaps it's because, when you watch Larmour or Ringrose or Carbery or Stockdale in action, a kind of time slip comes into effect. You don't just see what they're doing now, you see what they might do at not just the 2019 World Cup finals but, perhaps more significantly, the 2023 competition.

It's a beautiful sight.

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