Tuesday 25 June 2019

Neil Francis: Garry Ringrose is an outstanding prospect, but he must not be thrown to the wolves

‘There is an air of imperturbability when Garry Ringrose is in possession. Like all the great players he seems to do all the right things at the right time’ Photo:Sportsfile
‘There is an air of imperturbability when Garry Ringrose is in possession. Like all the great players he seems to do all the right things at the right time’ Photo:Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

"We have two lives, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that." The Natural, Bernard Malamud

It was only after I had read Bernard Malamud's brilliant The Natural for the second time that I realised it was a play on the quest for the Holy Grail. The Natural, Roy Hobbs, was Sir Percival and instead of the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table, the setting was 1930s depression-hit America, with the battlefields being the baseball park. Still learning, I suppose.

As we exit tentatively from a depression era, our greatest player is now two seasons gone and the quest for a worthy replacement has seemingly come to a conclusion. This one is about the Garry Ringrose phenomenon - not that the boy has done anything phenomenal yet, it is the Messianic expectations and the rugby public's inability to temper presumptions about a young man in the formative phase of what could be a great career. The boy is a natural. The question is where did he come from and how do you manage him?

Are great players born? Are they anointed? Does some divinity decide that the boy who lives three houses up the road from another is blessed with an inexplicable difference in natural ability from the guy he plays and trains with every other day? Sometimes champions can pick their parents - sometimes they can't.

Ross O'Carroll-Kelly might not like to admit it but quite often champions announce themselves by winning something of substance. The Leinster Schools Senior Cup is one of the most competitive competitions on the planet at underage level and year in, year out it produces players of real quality who sign their name into the tradition.

A bit like Brian O'Driscoll, Ringrose did not make the Blackrock JCT. His footballing excellence was evident but he was far too small and ended up as an undersized scrum-half on the J Seconds. In fifth year he ended up on the House Seconds until a growth spurt projected him onto the SCT at outside centre in sixth year. I remember playing SCT with Brendan Mullin as under 16s. He was probably a little small to play outhalf, but as term began the following year I barely recognised him, such was the body transformation. Kids can grow three or four inches in six months around 15-16 years of age.

On an SCT struggling for centres, Ringrose arrived out of nowhere. An undersized scrum-half to a leggy centre in six months. He brought two badly needed qualities, searing pace and a metronomic kicking style.

The Blackrock SCT that Ringrose played on was a long way down the list when it came to talent or ability, but my God this team had a deep reservoir of unquenchable spirit and irredeemable conviction.

They found themselves in the final against a heavily fancied (by themselves) St Michael's side and prevailed in the most thrilling and entertaining decider I have ever seen. St Michael's had an exceptionally strong side but in sport, as we have witnessed, the race doesn't necessarily go to the fastest, nor the fight to the strongest.

Many crazy things happened in that final. Ringrose, near midfield, pick-pocketed the ball out of the hands of a big St Michael's forward and ran 50 or 60 metres to score. The only time I had seen something similar was when David Campese nicked the ball from Dean Ryan to do the same thing years ago.

St Michael's led 20-16 in the last 10 minutes but a Keystone Cop endgame led to a brilliant Blackrock try in the left-hand corner. Ringrose slotted an important conversion from the touchline and incredibly, with minutes left, Blackrock led the match. At the death Ringrose missed a long-range effort which would have meant a 100 per cent place-kicking record for the entire tournament - something that got Blackrock out of jail all the way through.

He had a distinguished schools and under 20s career which pretty much brings us to the now. There are many things that stand out about his play. There is an air of imperturbability when he is in possession. Like all the great players, he seems to do all the right things at the right time - an uncanny ease of awareness, where you see lesser players try to figure it out, on or off the ball and get it wrong. It is a champion's intuition.

He has all the requirements for an international centre. Real pace, defensive judgment, crisp execution in his passing and feet that Fred Astaire would be envious of. Maybe we should just throw him in! It's the conundrum of player management or just letting his natural ability trump the workload and obstacles.

What is important is that you try to get a 12-14-year career out of your outstanding prospects. In this regard Ringrose has a decided advantage - he is going to miss the Leinster Academy, the School of Dulling Diamonds and Polishing Pebbles! The academy always seems to get great credit for a job well done. I am not sure they deserve it. How many prospects actually make the grade each year? Ringrose escapes the B&I League and the twilight zone of the A squad. It is important maybe to look back at that 2013 Schools Cup final and see what talent has gone where.

On the St Michael's side, Ross Molony has already played for the Leinster senior side this season. Nick McCarthy was in the 23 for both Toulon games and Ross Byrne is playing impressively for the A side. Cian Kelleher played for Leinster during the World Cup and will challenge. For Blackrock, Jeremy Loughman, David O'Connor, Charlie Rock and Jack Power will have to bide their time in the academy. The highly impressive Nick Timoney has unfortunately gone to Ulster after differences of opinion and the equally impressive Conor Oliver has been nicked by Munster. Never mind. There is so much talent, who cares if the other provinces steal a few? Maybe Leinster should.

Of about 10 senior provincial standard prospects from that game we wonder how many will simply vanish into thin air or fall asunder.

Ringrose of that group is the lucky one. Talent has its rewards. You get to escape the drudge of apprenticeship. He might be an interested by-stander or a passenger to his future as the clamour for his introduction get louder. The 'give yew-ith a chance' brigade calling for him to be thrown in against Jamie Roberts and Mathieu Bastareaud are on a mission. Quite often these calls come from people who have not the slightest notion of what is required to just survive in the bear-pit of Test rugby. Sometimes the call comes from people who do know. I was surprised at Brian O'Driscoll's view. Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel, who played in the same 2014 under 20 rugby World Cup as Ringrose, played for South Africa in the Rugby Championship and in the World Cup in 2015. The Saffers just produce bigger, stronger men than we do and they physically mature quicker than ours do.

There is a strong possibility that Ireland will go through a fallow period internationally and the hope that one talented 20-year-old might make a difference is just beyond credibility. O'Driscoll in his late 20s and early 30s did on a regular basis make a singular difference. I'm not sure, even if we got him back aged 28, that he could do that much to help.

Whatever disagreements I have had with Warren Gatland, one thing I will say about him is that he had balls. Balls to back his judgment and make a call. Back in 2001 he made a gutsy move and brought in Shane Horgan, John Hayes, Peter Stringer, Ronan O'Gara and Simon Easterby. At that stage none of them were a proven commodity and they could have failed after one cap and been ditched. They all became legends and important players.

The key here though was the scale - five new players - it changed the total dynamic of the team for a decade. If the continuing calls for Ringrose's introduction are to be relevant, the team has to have a clearout and half a dozen new or newish faces have to be introduced. One naturally gifted individual aged 20 isn't going to change much alone.

Joe Schmidt will go with experienced players and be conservative. He knows what he has on his hands. He is probably thinking of that Dinah Washington song: I'm mad about the boy, I know it's stupid to be mad about the boy . . .

Ringrose is bright, balanced and unassuming. A natural. But all things in their own time.

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