Sunday 19 November 2017

Neil Francis: Young guns have bullets ready to fire

'If James Ryan stays uninjured it is conceivable that he may be a fixture in the senior team
coming into Japan 2019.' Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
'If James Ryan stays uninjured it is conceivable that he may be a fixture in the senior team coming into Japan 2019.' Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In 1994 Ireland toured Australia as part of a two-Test schedule. The results weren't great but we made loads of great friends which is what rugby is all about… apparently.

Jeremy Davidson was brought out as a very raw 21-year-old, and although he didn't play in that many of the matches, he did make loads of friends on that tour. I was 30 and had at least another two seasons in me as first-choice second-row.

Davidson didn't make the party for the 1995 World Cup in South Africa but resurfaced to get a first cap against Fiji in the autumn of that year. He didn't get picked for the Five Nations in January but we played badly against Scotland, and at 32 I got the Ruud Gullit.

After 10 seasons there is no easy way to say that you are surplus to requirements. I got a two-minute phone call. Buzz Lightyear was in and I was out… the circle of life and all that.

To this day there are two elements which strike me about that dispatch. The ruthless and impersonal nature of it all, and how quickly these feckers come up behind you. Jeremy played brilliantly in his time in green but got hit hard by injury, which affects him badly even now.

Donnacha Ryan had a very good Six Nations and probably figured he had a season or two left in him. Events conspired and amid some ham-fisted contractual wranglings a cul de sac is appropriated into his career path and suddenly it is all over.

It is purely my opinion but I would suspect that the prospect of going to Racing doesn't appeal to him that much.


A very promising U-20 star is accommodated in a warm-up match for an Ireland U-20s game. A very promising U-20 star needs match practice because it looks like he will be a bolter for the Japan tour. A very promising U-20 is picked for the Japan tour and a starting second-row for the 2017 Six Nations who is fit and available is gone.

It's a rum business this professional sport. If you say you are going to play your rugby out of the country, in Joe speak that means goodbye. Joe Schmidt is a ruthless man.

The World Cup starts in 28 months. What odds on James Ryan, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane being the four second-rows brought on the plane? Joe and David Nucifora have been doing some medium-term planning here for their forward stock for the World Cup.

James Ryan is every bit as good as the advance publicity and if he stays uninjured, it is conceivable that he may be a fixture in the senior team coming into Japan 2019.

In an ultra-competitive environment, you have to consider Ross Molony. He has done well in his early time for Leinster but at this moment in time you would say that he does not have all the ingredients required to play at international level. He will undoubtedly get better and could conceivably still get to play for Ireland.

That whooshing sound of somebody flying in over your head can be disconcerting. Molony has played 40 times for Leinster; Ryan has not even made the Leinster senior squad. Ryan's path was charted from a long way out. Hard for your rivals to look ahead when you know what is coming up behind you.

Who else should be looking around? Devin Toner will be 33 when the World Cup starts. Toner's ability, temperament and improvement graph have been admirable.

He continues to compete on a level footing with any lock in world rugby and he may think that he has a pretty good chance of being in pole position for the big show in 2019.

I didn't think the skinny 21-year-old Davidson would present any problems. Ryan at 22 in 2019 is the perfect replacement for Toner. Ryan's tight play as a ball-winning lock at lineout and kick-off time is first class, and he is a far better ball carrier and far more aggressive than Toner.

He is also a natural captain, a motivator and someone who adapts and learns quickly. Next season Toner will have his hands full just staving off Henderson and Dillane.

The heat in the kitchen has just gone up to regulo 9. This selection is a statement of serious intent from Schmidt.

Treadwell is a less certain selection but no less interesting. I saw him play for England U-20 against Ireland in Donnybrook. England just won out by 19-14. Treadwell did not stand out that night and it is hard to make a judgement now.

One thing I do like about him is his athleticism. One of the things that makes Maro Itoje stand out is that he is an athlete. Sometimes people brand forwards as athletes without having the slightest notion what qualifies you as an athlete. Itoje as a shot putter and Treadwell as a hurdler have followed athletic pursuits but the key to being an athlete is being able to generate explosive power and to have not just speed but gears as well. Itoje has great ability to generate speed from a standing start - it is why he always gets across the gain-line. Body shape is only a small part of it.

Treadwell was Itoje's successor in England's U-20 side in 2015. It will be interesting to see if Ulster can get the very best out of him. The boy has frightening pace and good hands. So we want to see if he can emulate what Itoje has done in the last year. That is practically impossible but that is the mission.

England had a prime athlete delivered to them and they did not waste any time turning him into one of the best locks in the world and a certain Lions Test starter.

Ireland and Ulster are charged with extracting the best out of Treadwell. The first and most important step was to select him on the tour to Japan. They will now have to give Ryan and Treadwell a start maybe together and see how they go. That is imperative!

One of the things that has become evident with the selection of this squad to Japan is how important the U-20 conveyor belt is for Ireland. Of the 2016 U-20 World Cup final team, already three players will tour with the senior squad - Ryan, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale. We could conceivably get three more out of that squad.

The 2015 team gave up Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery (as well as Porter and Stockdale).

Going back through the years, practically the whole Japan touring squad went through the U-20 system. It is noteworthy that Ireland get significantly more through to the senior ranks than England do - the country that we should be judging our through-put against.

For all England's success and deep levels of talent, they don't seem to turn them into senior internationals the way Ireland do. It might seem churlish but on a critical level we could, with more methodical application, mine another one or two more than we do.

As we have learned from the selections this week, it keeps the guys in possession on their toes. It is a ruthless business.

Irish Independent

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