Friday 24 January 2020

New kids on the block hope to make it big in Japan

Ireland's James Ryan, left, and Andrew Porter
Ireland's James Ryan, left, and Andrew Porter
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Nothing illustrates better the seismic shift in producing modern Test rugby players than what happened in New Jersey's Red Bull Arena two nights ago.

In June 2016, three of Ireland's match-day 23 against the US were running around with lads their own age. Now they are Test players hoping to be regulars by the time Ireland return to Japan for the 2019 World Cup.

Their immediate focus back then would have been on getting as far as possible in the U-20 World Cup. Doing well there - beating New Zealand was a unique occurrence - was a launching pad for provincial stuff. These were Academy lads. Getting some game time in the Guinness PRO12 was an ambitious enough target.

Jacob Stockdale was leading the charge there: he had six games under his belt before heading to Manchester with the 20s. As an outside back of nearly 6ft 4in and 15 stone, he already had a head start. The other pair are grunts. They were a mile off a run with the seniors.

In Andrew Porter's case the journey would be complicated slightly by his freakishly powerful frame. Tightheads are a more valuable commodity than looseheads. He looked like he could make the shift across the scrum, but it would take more time.

As for James Ryan, he came through the schools system and was marked out as a leader who one day would play for his country. The prediction didn't convey the message that the national bit would come before playing for his province - or that he would be a contender for a world record for the fastest Test try by a new cap.

"In fairness, Earlsy, as he was doing all game, made a line-break," said Ryan of the score, some 60 seconds after coming off the bench.

"There was a couple of lads on his inside and I was lucky enough - he just popped it to me and I touched it down."

Well, he had to run a bit first. Whatever, action replays aren't his thing. Rather - exactly like the others - there seems to be an obsession with promoting the next challenge and, above all else, the collective.

His season as an Academy player with Leinster was shredded by a serious hamstring injury, so in order to give him a gallop - Leinster A were done and dusted - Joe Schmidt directed him to Munster A versus Ireland's U-20s last month. That put a whole 80 minutes into his legs.

It's hard to fathom how you could embark on an international tour when you have zero senior provincial experience, and so little gas in your tank, without getting palpitations.

Ryan conceded it was "a bit of a challenge". There you go.

Porter, meanwhile, is something of a veteran, with eight runs for Leinster this season, one of which was a start. The tighthead bit of his equation has not even started to compute and yet he can come on and survive half an hour of Test rugby.

"It's overwhelming," he said. "I got more time than I thought I would for a first cap, but it's great to get a few minutes under the belt, especially coming over as a tighthead."

The modern production line for players is spitting out sleek machines that don't need to be road-tested. That lads like this are capable of surviving truly is a wonder, but it's not clear if there is any wonderment in it at all.

In equal measure you wish them all the best, and hope those designing the system don't shut off the valve that allows for late developers to get on board. This is a sport that prides itself on accommodating all shapes and sizes. That needs to be figurative as well as literal.

Irish Independent

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